Alcohol (ethyl alcohol or ethanol) consumption has a social aspect to it, but it is often abused. The effect of alcohol consumption on the body depends on how often it is consumed, how much, and the alcohol content of the drinks. Frequent alcohol use may encourage alcohol dependence or alcoholism. Alcoholism is a chronic disease that progresses and is often fatal. It is a primary disorder and not only a symptom of other diseases or emotional disorders. Factors such as psychology, culture, genetics, and response to physical pain influence the severity of alcoholism.
Health concerns relating to alcohol consumption
Alcoholic liver disease may occur with chronic alcohol consumption. This disease is manifested in three forms: steatosis (fatty liver), alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis. Alcohol abuse is responsible for 60% to 75% of cases of cirrhosis, which is a major risk factor for eventually developing primary liver cancer. Alcohol may further compromise the health of an individual through:
- Immune system suppression. People with alcoholism are prone to infections, in particular, pneumonia.
- Gastrointestinal problems; especially diarrhea and hemorrhoids.
- Mental and neurological disorders. Chronic use eventually leads to depression and confusion. In severe cases, gray matter in the brain is destroyed, possibly leading to psychosis and mental disturbances.
- Alcoholism increases levels of the female hormone estrogen and reduces levels of the male hormone testosterone, factors that contribute to impotence in men.
- Hypoglycemia (a drop in blood sugar) is particularly dangerous for diabetics taking insulin.
- Severe alcoholism is associated with osteoporosis.
- Drug interactions.
Alcohol's association with cancer
Alcohol consumption is an important risk factor for many types of cancer including: pharynx, larynx, mouth, breast, liver, lung, esophagus, gastric, pancreatic, urinary tract, prostrate, ovarian, colorectal, brain cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.
The risk of breast cancer and other cancers rises as alcohol consumption increases. Risk increases with all types of alcoholic drinks: wine, beer and spirits; this suggests that cancer risk is related to alcohol consumption itself as opposed to the other compounds in the drinks. Approximately 75% of cancers of the esophagus and 50% of cancers of the mouth, throat, and larynx are due to alcoholism. Other research has demonstrated, however, that wine poses less danger for these cancers than beer or hard liquor. Alcohol, when combined with smoking, increases the chances of developing mouth, throat, pharynx, larynx and esophageal cancers significantly. For esophageal cancer, there is a 3 to 8 fold increase in risk in those who drink 40-100 grams of alcohol per day, and the risks are even greater with smoking.
Research has shown that women who consume only one alcoholic drink per day have a 30% higher risk of dying from breast cancer than nondrinkers. Even consuming small amounts of alcohol may increase breast cancer risk, particularly in postmenopausal women due to increased hormone levels circulating in the blood.
Cancer patients may find that alcohol consumption interferes with the effectiveness of anticancer therapy and may cause them to become even sicker.
Nutritional impact of alcohol consumption
Even moderate alcohol consumption can have detrimental effects on the health of cancer patients. If food intake is replaced by alcohol to a large extent, malnutrition is likely to occur. In fact, alcoholism is a major cause of malnutrition. The body requires protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, and minerals, but these are often inadequate with heavy alcohol consumption. Nutritional status is thus further compromised in cancer patients who abuse alcohol.
Alcohol contains energy (or calories) just like food does, but it does not contain many of the nutrients required by the body. Furthermore, because few nutrients are provided in alcohol, the vitamin and mineral content of the diet may be poor, even if the total energy intake is adequate. Alcohol contains approximately 7 kilocalories (Kcal) per gram, while carbohydrate or protein contains about 4 Kcal per gram. Thus, the nutrients required by the body will not be obtained if alcohol replaces food intake to some extent. In fact, alcohol interferes with the body's mechanisms the regulate food intake, and therefore food intake decreases. When inadequate nutrients are consumed, the body may become weaker and less able to tolerate cancer therapies. As nutritional status declines, it becomes more difficult to fight off illness and infection.
Alcohol may further compromise nutritional status of an individual through:
- malabsorption of vitamins and minerals and particularly folate, thiamine, Vitamins B6 and B12, calcium, magnesium, and fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, and K)
- inducing early satiation
- reduced absorption of amino acids (the building blocks of protein)
- immune suppression
- respiratory disorders
- liver, gastrointestinal tract, and pancreas damage
Dietary interactions relating to cancer
Alcohol has numerous influences on the nutritional status of the cancer patient which is often already compromised by the disease. Cancer often increases the body's energy (calorie) and protein requirements. These increased needs may be due to the effects of the tumor or the effects of treatment (surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy). At the same time, cancer patients tend to decrease their food intake, often due to anorexia, which can be characterized as a loss of interest in eating. Anorexia, cachexia, and weight loss are common side effects of cancer, so a cancer patient who consumes alcohol should be careful not to replace the needed energy and nutrients with too many calories from alcohol.
Recommendations regarding alcohol consumption
Although moderate alcohol consumption is recommended to reduce the risk of heart disease, other lifestyle factors such as a healthy diet and exercise reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
The American Cancer Society's (ACS) Guidelines on Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer Prevention recommend moderation in alcohol intake. Experts suggest that intake should be limited to no more than an average of two drinks daily for women and three drinks a day for men. One should consider, however, research reports that suggest that even one drink per day may be detrimental to breast cancer risk in women.
Two of the most common forms of treatment for alcoholics are cognitive-behavioral and interactional group psychotherapy based on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. People with mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms are usually treated in outpatient programs and are treated through counseling, and/or support groups. Individuals may be treated in a general or psychiatric hospitals or substance abuse rehabilitation facilities if they: possess coexisting medical or psychiatric disorders; have a difficult home environment; are a danger to themselves or others; have not responded to other conservative treatments. Inpatient programs often include physical and psychiatric development, detoxification, psychotherapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy, and an introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Crystal Heather Kaczkowski, M.S.
—A primary disorder and chronic disease, progressive and often fatal where an individual is dependent on alcohol.
—A condition frequently observed in cancer patients characterized by a loss of appetite or desire to eat.
—The enlarged upper end of the trachea below the root of the tongue and the primary organ that enables speech.
—The passageway for air from the nasal cavity to the larynx and food from the mouth to the esophagus, also providing a place for resonance.
—A feeling of fullness or satisfaction during or after food intake.