ALL ALCOHOLIC beverages contain the same chemical substance ethyl alcohol (ethanol) that has been consumed by mankind since prehistoric times.
Today, alcoholic drinks are divided into three main classes: beer, wines and spirits. The first two are produced by fermentation while spirits are made by distillation. Whatever their name or class, all alcoholic drinks contain the identical chemical - ethanol, which is a powerful drug.
In countries like Jamaica with a drinking culture, the social conditioning causes many people to disregard the fact that alcohol is an addictive psychoactive drug whose misuse creates a multitude of problems.
Men and women who consume alcohol are known to have increased risks of many diseases. These include cirrhosis of the liver, digestive system diseases such as gastritis, ulcers or pancreatitis, several painful and often deadly cancers such as throat, oesophagus and liver cancer, heart disease, bone disorders, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and gout.
Alcohol is particularly poisonous to the nervous system and causes disorders such as blackouts, seizures, tremors and neuritis. It can inflame and disrupt brain function creating encephalitis and psychological and psychiatric disturbances like psychosis, personality changes, anxiety, and depression.
Experts estimate that a single drink of alcohol results in the death of thousands of brain cells. It negatively influences behaviour, reactions, coordination, focus, and judgement.
One of the main causes of mental retardation, the foetal alcohol syndrome occurs only in the children of alcohol-consuming mothers. Although it is true that some of these health problems occur mainly in heavy drinkers, alcohol in any quantity may be hazardous to your health.
Professor Albert Lowenfels from New York Medical College had declared that there is only one so-called 'health benefit' from drinking alcohol - drinking small amounts of alcohol may seem to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. But is this single questionable gain enough to balance out the long list of alcohol-associated problems? The fact is that few drinkers consume small amounts of alcohol, for not only is it a poison, it is also an addictive poison.
Men are twice as likely as women to abuse or become dependent on alcohol. In the UK, around 40 per cent of men drink more than the guidelines set by health officials, which states that men should not regularly drink more than three to four units of alcohol a day (the equivalent of less than two pints of standard beer). 'Regularly' means drinking most or all days of the week. A particularly dangerous pattern of drinking is called binge drinking, which for men means consuming eight or more units in a single session.
Men may drink more because, in general, they can hold their drink better than women. Men's bodies usually process alcohol more efficiently than women and there are reasons for this. The average woman weighs less than the average man and has less body mass to absorb alcohol.
Women also have a proportionally higher ratio of body fat to water than men, their bodies are less able to dilute the alcohol (alcohol readily dissolves in water but not fat). So consuming the same amount of alcohol will cause a higher concentration of alcohol in the blood of women than in men.
This is not good news for men as this relative tolerance may cause them to drink more. A man who regularly drinks above the recommended daily guidelines (about two drinks a day) is at greater risk for many health issues - from low energy and sexual difficulties in the short term, to heart disease and cancer in the long term. His risk of developing liver cirrhosis will triple, and he will double his chance of being diagnosed with high blood pressure.
Alcohol and male sexual performance
In small quantities, alcohol may increase your confidence and reduce your sexual inhibitions, but it does not usually improve your prowess in bed. As Shakespeare puts it, 'It improves the desire, but detracts from the performance'. Studies have shown that alcohol reduces male testosterone levels.
This can lead to a loss of libido, shrinking of the testes, enlargement of the breasts and a loss of muscle mass. This problem is compounded because, as well as lowering a man's testosterone levels, alcohol also increases his levels of the female hormone oestrogen. Impotent male drinkers often become abusive to their spouses and children.
In addition to affecting hormone levels, alcohol is directly toxic to the testes. This can harm both the quality and the quantity of a man's sperm. The sperm cells produced are prevented from developing properly and have a reduced ability to move towards and fertilise the egg. Alcohol may also damage the sperm by interfering with how the liver processes vitamin A, which is important for healthy sperm development.
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system and can make it difficult for some men to get and maintain an erection (a problem named 'brewer's droop'). By damaging the nerve endings that provide sensation to a man's genitals, alcohol will further decrease sexual responses and arousal.
Alcohol is fattening.
Alcohol is high in calories that have no nutritional value. But in addition to the calories in the drink, alcohol will also reduce the amount of fat your body burns for energy. Because the body cannot store alcohol, our metabolism seeks to eliminate it as quickly as possible at the expense of burning fat. This contributes to the infamous 'beer belly' in many drinkers.
For both men and women, regular drinking can lead to your body building up a tolerance to alcohol. You have to drink more to get the same effects, which can mean you end up drinking to levels that are harmful to your health. Thus, if you do drink, it is important to take regular breaks from alcohol to reset your tolerance.
Although fewer women are drinkers than men, as with smoking, more women are acquiring the habit and they are more likely to develop complications as a result of alcohol even if they drink less alcohol than their male counterpart. It is estimated that 25 per cent of women in the UK are binge drinkers.
According to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, excessive alcohol consumption in the United States (US) causes about 79,000 deaths annually, increased disease and injury, property damage from fire and motor vehicle accidents, alcohol-related crime, family disruption, and lost productivity.
The estimated economic cost of excessive drinking was $223.5 billion in 2006 that corresponds to about $0.80 per alcoholic drink consumed in that year. That equates to about $746 per US resident, most of which is attributable to binge drinking. Over in Britain, the alcohol abuse cost is at least £20 billion a year. I wonder what those figures are for Jamaica.
You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at email@example.com or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His new book 'An Ounce of Prevention, Especially for Women' is available locally and on the Internet.