Nutrition and Alcohol
Effects of Alcohol on Health and Disease
Alcohol can lead to obesity. Since alcohol contains seven calories per gram, it has a high caloric density. For example, the beer belly of some construction workers is no surprise. A daily six-pack of Bud amounts to approximately 900 calories per day and can result in adding an additional 94 pounds of fat by the end of a year’s time. If instead of being consumed in addition to regular calories the individual allows alcohol to replace food energy, there may be a risk of nutritional deficiencies. NOTE: Calories from alcohol are “empty” because they have no other nutritive value.
There is malabsorption of vitamins in alcoholics, especially thiamine or vitamin B1, and folic acid. This is due to the toxic effect of alcohol on the intestinal mucosa. Thiamine and folic acid deficiency can lead to complication such as loss of feeling in lower extremities, jerky eye movements, muscular weakness and cramps, and anemia. Other B vitamin deficiency symptoms are diarrhea and skin problems.
Alcohol affects tissues like the liver so they don’t utilize nutrients or cant store them in a normal manner. In chronic alcoholism with depressed liver function, vitamin stores are depleted due to an inability of the liver cells to store vitamins. Vitamin A deficiency in alcoholics with liver cirrhosis may be due to malabsorption and impaired liver storage of vitamin A.
Alcohol has a direct toxic effect on the pancreas, producing acute pancreatitis and hyperglycemia. Prolonged intake of alcohol increases the risk of chronic pancreatitis. Malabsorption of amino acids and fat can result from impaired production of pancreatic enzymes. Most alcoholic patients with more than 20 years of alcohol abuse have steatorrhea (excess fat in the feces).
Alcohol causes an increased urinary excretion of amino acids (building blocks of protein), zinc, magnesium and potassium. Amino acid losses can result in anemia, edema, weakness, loss of muscle mass, and decreased resistance to infection. Potassium and magnesium deficiency may affect the heart. Zinc depletion could retard repair of liver damage, and impair wound healing.
Nutritional anemias are common in alcoholics. There is defective red blood cell development and maturation.
Osteoporosis (reduction in bone mass) occurs earlier in alcoholics than in non alcoholics. The causes of this premature osteoporosis could be low intake of calcium as a result of milk aversion and the toxic effects of alcohol on bone and calcium absorption.
Hepatic siderosis (iron deposition in the liver) occurs in alcoholics who consume large amounts of alcoholic beverages high in iron. The iron content of cheap, red wine is high, and kaffir beers in South Africa when brewed in iron pots are extremely high in iron.
Alcohol can increase triglycerides (fats) in the blood. Disorders associated with high triglycerides in the blood include diabetes, pancreatitis and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Alcohol can raise HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol). Whether or not raising HDL cholesterol will in fact protect against atherosclerosis or development of ischemic heart disease remains to be seen. However, it is not prudent to recommend potentially toxic effects on the liver and heart, as well as its social effects.
In alcoholic patients, malabsorption can occur during drinking episodes due to the direct toxic effects of alcohol on the intestinal mucosa. When the alcoholic stops drinking, absorptive function is restored. On the other hand, in such alcohol-related diseases as chronic pancreatitis and cirrhosis, malabsorption is associated with permanently impaired organ function.
Warning for the diabetic: Diabetics who use alcohol may have difficulty with low blood sugar reactions. When a diabetic drinks alcohol, the liver’s function to form glucose or blood sugar from non carbohydrate sources can be completely blocked because alcohol competes with liver enzymes. Since glucose or sugar is not freely available when needed, the hypoglycemia (or low blood sugar) which follows can be quite profound and prolonged.