I was reading an interesting article on the BBC news website the other day and it talked about the detrimental health effects and the financial cost of alcohol related hospital admissions to the National Health Service in the UK. I couldn’t believe it when I read that nearly £2 billion was spent on alcohol related in-patient hospital admissions in just one year.
As a medical doctor from the UK, a country that has an entrenched culture of drinking alcohol, (in moderation and to excess) I thought it would be interesting to write about the health implications of drinking alcohol.
Having been brought up as a Baha’i I know that the Baha’i teachings do not allow the consumption of substances such as alcohol which alter our judgement. In The Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah states:
It is inadmissible that man, who hath been endowed with reason, should consume that which stealeth it away.
When I talk to friends about alcohol, the first response is “Yes, but I only drink wine with food, what’s wrong with that?” Many would say that there is nothing wrong with that and in fact there are some health benefits to drinking one glass of wine per day, however there are also extensive amounts of study which point to the overwhelming medical and social harms caused by alcohol. The problem is that many people cannot drink in moderation. The religious laws that have been revealed to us which are meant to guide and protect us, refer to the whole human race — all of society, not just a minority of individuals who can drink in moderation. Unfortunately the social, economic and physical harms of alcohol are usually seen in populations of people who are unable to drink “just one glass of wine” a day, and the Baha’i Faith is not the only religion that teaches abstinence from alcohol, many of the writings from other religions also discuss this topic.
As a Baha’i, I adhere to the law of abstinence from alcohol and I don’t feel that I need to be convinced about the wisdom of this law, but as a doctor, I see the wide reaching effects of drinking alcohol on a daily basis — and not just physical, but psychological, emotional, social, and economic. There is an emerging body of evidence and health professionals who are accepting the negative effects of alcohol on health and on the individual, and are consequently actively questioning its place and discouraging its use in society. There are numerous writings and quotes on the subject, but one that refers specifically to the health issues is the following quote by Abdu’l-Baha:
The drinking of wine is, according to the text of the Most Holy Book, forbidden; for it is the cause of chronic diseases, weakeneth the nerves, and consumeth the mind. (The Advent of Divine Justice)
I regularly talk to patients about the harmful health effects of alcohol, and I thought I would share just five of the many harmful effects that alcohol has on our health, in order to shed some light on this Baha’i law from a medical perspective.
1. It’s a Toxin
The first point to make is that alcohol is a chemical and a toxin to the human body. When alcohol is ingested it is absorbed into the blood stream and needs to be metabolized and converted to a safe compound that can be then converted to carbon dioxide and water. One of the main functions of the liver is to remove toxins from the blood. When excess alcohol is consumed, it can cause inflammation, cell death and fibrosis of liver cells. This can lead to hepatitis or cirrhosis of the liver, which can in some cases be fatal.
2. Links to Cancer
According to Cancer Council Australia it is estimated that 5,070 cases of cancer (or 5% of all cancers) are attributable to long-term, chronic use of alcohol each year in Australia. Alcohol is known to be a risk factor for mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, bowel (in men) and breast (in women) cancers. There is a dose dependent relationship between amount of alcohol consumption and development of the cancers mentioned above, and for the first time the US Department of Health and Human services has listed alcohol as a known human carcinogen (substance directly involved in causing cancer). There are a number of mechanisms thought to be involved, including the effects of acetaldehyde (the breakdown product of alcohol), and the induction of certain enzymes (cytochrome system ).
3. Heart Disease
Alcohol can raise triglyceride (trig) levels, as well as lead to high blood pressure (high trig and high BP are risk factors for heart attack and stroke) and heart failure. There is increasing evidence to show that even moderate amounts of alcohol in young adults has a proatherogenic effect, i.e. it helps to contribute to the formation of atheroma (plaque) in the arteries which leads to heart attack and stroke. Other conditions where alcohol is a causal risk factor include fetal alcohol syndrome, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death.
4. Mental Health
Alcohol use can cause alcohol-related psychosis (delusions and hallucinations , paranoia etc), and can also increase relapse frequency and severity for those suffering from schizophrenia. Alcohol can also lead to dementia, with symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer’s Disease. Alcohol can also cause depression, and also leads to higher rates of suicide and poorer outcomes in patients with depression who use alcohol to try and cope with their symptoms. Alcohol can cause problems with sleep, and general functioning as it is a “depressant” chemical – it slows processes down in the body- brain function being a primary example.
5. Brain Functions
Effects of alcohol on behaviors/brain functioning include: impaired judgment, extreme emotion, and slowed behavior, slowed processing of information, difficulty in learning new material, deficits in abstraction and problem solving, and reduced visuospatial abilities. We have all seen examples of this especially impaired judgement and loss of inhibitions!
As you can see regardless of one’s religious beliefs, strong arguments can be made for the benefits of abstaining from drinking alcohol on health grounds alone. I could go on and on — seizures, gout, anaemia, nerve damage, pancreatitis — but I would rather hear about your thoughts on drinking alcohol, so please feel free to share!