In past articles we examined how alcohol affects the brain, however, we only glossed over the physiological impacts of alcohol on the body. As a staunch subscriber to the mind-body connection, I believe it is my duty to educate you on the systemic effects our bodies must wrestle with following a night out drinking.
Let’s start by understanding how our bodies metabolize alcoholic beverages. Once ingested, the active ingredient in alcohol, ethanol, is absorbed into blood vessels within the stomach and intestines and ultimately transported to the liver via the portal vein. Once in the liver, ethanol can enter liver cells. At this a special enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) speeds up a reaction that transforms ethanol into acetaldehyde. The acetaldehyde is further metabolized into acetic acid (essentially vinegar) by a second enzyme called Aldehyde Dehydrogenase (ALDH). The acetic acid is a generally harmless compound and will eventually be converted into carbon dioxide and water (Zakhari, 2006).
To better understand how this process impacts our health, let's zoom in on acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic compound with carcinogenic effects. In the short term, it can lead to nausea, vomiting, increases in blood pressure, and a general feeling of unwell. However, chronically high levels of acetaldehyde can damage liver cells and increase the risks of developing several different cancers (including liver, breast, and colorectal cancer; How is Alcohol Eliminated from the Body? – The Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership | Duke University, 2021; National Cancer Institute, 2021). Additionally, the metabolism of alcohol releases free radicals which damage cells and activate your body’s immune response, increasing inflammation (Knight, 2021; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2021).
My goal in sharing this information is not to scare you, but to inform you of the physical risks associated with alcohol use. Remember, in moderation, alcohol is relatively benign, however, chronic misuse can lead to negative health outcomes. By better understanding the mechanisms behind this relationship, you can feel empowered to take control of your own health!