Alcohol and you; what to know

Abuse of alcohol has a major effect on the body.

It affects the digestive tract in several ways. It is an irritant to the stomach and can cause vomiting acutely or ulceration and bleeding of the stomach or oesophagus.

Overall immunity is significantly lowered with chronic excessive use. With heavy use over time, alcohol decreases the body’s immune response (the ability to respond to threats from bacteria, viruses or cancer cells) and the person may be more prone to infection. Alcohol is implicated in bladder cancer.

Alcohol damages nerves and muscles. The effect on nerve tissue is so well known that alcohol is injected into certain nerves to permanently disable them e.g. treat Trigeminal neuralgia, among other things.

Beriberi heart disease is evidence that alcohol can affect that organ’s functioning. Moderate drinking is said to be protective of the heart, but prolonged excessive drinking or continual episodes of binge drinking may cause alcoholic cardiomyopathy, in which the heart becomes enlarged and flabby and the person may develop high blood pressure, heart failure or irregular heart rhythms.

There used to be a term ‘beriberi heart disease’, which os essentially what has just been described as cardiomyopathy. Both conditions are due to thiamine deficiency and vitamin supplementation is part of the management of the condition. However, if it is discovered late, when anatomical damage is established, the heart may not fully recover.

Alcohol and sexual performance: The effects are beautifully summarised by the porter during a conversation between himself and MacDuff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when he said:

Porter: … drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things.

MacDuff: What three things does drink especially provoke?

Porter: Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance:

As many men have discovered to their chagrin, the desire they feel is followed by failure to deliver because of alcohol-induced impotence.

Alcohol and emotions: Alcohol can deepen clinical depression. Researchers all over the world have found that several persons who have survived a suicide attempt report that they drank “to drown out memories, but instead wallowed in waves of depression, eventually becoming suicidal.

Alcohol also causes a condition known as morbid jealousy – a kind of paranoia/suspicion about their partner’s fidelity. This may or may not be in a context of impotence. The result is accusations and sometimes physical aggression towards the guiltless partner and sometimes homicide. It has been called morbid jealousy or the Othello Syndrome and persons aware of Shakespeare’s play would recognise the similarity.

Alcohol and the eyes: The eyes are affected in both the long and short term. With low blood levels of alcohol, the effects may not be so obvious, but as more alcohol is had and blood levels increase, vision becomes blurred or doubled, and depth perception and night vision deteriorate. These effects will hamper the driver in determining how near or even what an object is, thus putting him/herself and all other road users at great risk.

The problem is compounded at night, as the eyes get dazzled by on-coming lights and the eye muscles are unable to react quickly enough to contract the pupils and limit the amount of light entering the eye, or to focus properly – again a scenario for a possible accident, especially as alcohol also impairs judgment, coordination and reaction time.

For long-term alcohol users, the eyes may be affected by tobacco-alcohol amblyopia. In this condition, there is visual deterioration, thought due to the combined effects of the two substances plus deficiency of B complex vitamins and Thiamine (Vit B1).

Alcohol and the developing baby. When pregnant women drink, the alcohol goes via the placenta to the developing baby. The more the woman drinks, especially during the earlier parts of the pregnancy when the cells are differentiating, the more likely the baby will be born with, or later show, certain defects.

The most severe situation of course, would be if the baby does not survive the levels of alcohol to which it is exposed. The next result is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, FAS, in which the baby is born small for its age and remains developmentally slow, may have poor muscle tone and development, may have heart defects and characteristic facial defects with small eyes and a thin upper lip and may show developmental delay in thinking, speaking and social skills i.e., show learning problems.

It is important to realise that any drinking of alcohol during pregnancy puts the manifestation of defects. Mothers who drink less may have babies who do not show the full FAS, but show Foetal Alcohol effects or newer terms alcohol-related neuro-developmental disorder and alcohol-related birth defects proposed by the Institute of Medicine in the USA.

Thus we have seen that alcohol is not so harmless. Indeed we have seen that it can affect the baby in the womb, the youth and adults of all ages, via intoxication with the possibility of severe social consequences (road traffic accidents, domestic abuse, depression, murder and suicide); binge drinking and chronic excessive use with damage to all body structures especially the liver, heart and decreased immunity with possibility of cancer; the emotional and psychiatric consequences of alcoholism or alcohol addiction adversely affect not only the alcoholic, male or female, but also an expanding number of people, including his or her siblings, parents, children, spouse and other persons in the work, church, recreational or other social setting.

Loraine Barnaby is a psychiatrist based in the Cayman Islands.