The December Spirit

The man who discovered alcohol died centuries ago, but his spirit still lives on… and haunts us — By Dr Rajagopal Soondron

As the year plunges into its 12th and last turn of its artificial cycle, many people around the globe are bracing themselves to dive into that last month we have come to call December. The grownups would not like to miss this occasion when some excess drinking and eating would be socially tolerable. That’s how people in the UK consume about 40% more of alcohol in December than at other times!

The harder we toil to build a better society, the more adrenaline and stress we have to pump into our organism, and the more the need to smooth out that stress by reveling at the end of the year – where time is opening a supposed new chapter in our life – while in fact it is bringing us nearer to the inevitable brink. We just need excuses to give up those restraints that society has gladly imposed upon us all year round.

Maybe alcohol has come to typify that medium which many men and women are ready to partake to forget themselves, to renew acquaintances with old buddies, to forget immediate problems and temporary failures, to smooth out differences and celebrate the passing of time – thereby hoping to elevate themselves to a higher cognitive level. But lo! This is hiding into a virtual world; they’ll wake up the following day to see both themselves and the world unchanged.

Alcohol the Villain

Alcohol is known to be addictive; yet it was legalized to prevent collateral damage, with the hope that people would control themselves and drink moderately. Unfortunately, in a democratic country, freedom can turn sour when all of us start asking the inevitable question: “What is the limit?”

On being processed in our body alcohol breaks down into chemicals called aldehydes. They destroy our DNA and prevent cells repair, leading to cancer. In fact the WHO has classified alcohol as a carcinogen in the category 1 — along with plutonium and asbestos! It leads to cardiovascular diseases and early death, stroke, immune system dysfunction and pushes us into injuring oneself or others especially while driving. The liver is a robust organ, capable of taking and adapting to extensive insults — but when the limit is crossed it fails relentlessly, leading to jaundice and risk of death. Meanwhile our brain deprived of important vitamins and nutrients loses its cognitive capacity, resulting in all sorts of psychiatric manifestations, which is why many beds in our mental health institutions are occupied by alcoholics, depriving more deserving patients.

So various countries have put up programs to educate their citizens and limit alcohol’s deleterious effect. Research work has shown that binge drinking is the cause for most damage. In the ex USSR, the foremost consumer of spirits in Europe, President Gorbachev did his best to reduce cardiovascular disease affecting his countrymen. In a single year there was an increase in life expectancy by two years after cessation of binge drinking. France which was listed as second behind the USSR offered us a paradox; cardiovascular disease was not so pronounced, because of absence of binge drinking. The French spend a long time at dinner table and consume wine (not spirit). Their life expectancy is far higher than that of the Russians. Thus when, how often and what volume is drunk will determine the detrimental effect of alcohol.

There is another trap that we laymen may fall into: a unit of alcohol in the UK is equivalent to 8 grams of pure alcohol while in the USA and Canada it is 14 grams; in Austria it is 20 grams. As a result, some people copy other countries’ criteria to fool themselves. If the English health authorities have come to sanction the weekly 14 units of alcohol (equivalent to 6 pints of beer) as being harmless, the Austrian cannot extrapolate and say that he also can have 14 of his units weekly. The WHO is adamant: more than two UK units of alcohol per day (16 grams) is definitely detrimental to health.

So moderate drinking has been the focus of all plans. Many people drink moderately – why don’t they cross the line and become alcoholics? Because they are born moderates in all aspects of their lives; they have regular physical exercise, control the quality and quantity of food they consume and have a different concept of life. So to come to a clear verdict that moderate drinking by itself is beneficial is to jump to conclusions too quickly. And those who do take moderate alcoholic drinks can reverse any setbacks by exercising regularly, about 8 hours per week.

That may explain why in China, nearly 80 000 people, identified as moderate drinkers, were seen to have a higher level of good cholesterol (HDL) than the teetotalers or those drinking more than two UK units of alcohol.

However we must be aware that much of the research work being done to evaluate the effect of alcohol on health is done on rats… and we tend to extrapolate the results to humans. In particular, some overenthusiastic businessmen are very keen to highlight positive outcomes from such research — to “prove” to the ignorant that alcohol is good for humans, and thus try to capture the market.

Any advantages?

There has been a lot of talk about the resveratrol in wine; it is supposed to stimulate the good lipids (HDL) in the blood and protect the heart against the bad lipids, and stave off cognitive deterioration. Experiments carried out confirm that finding; pure tablets of resveratrol were given daily to human subjects and they were found to be better off than those given inert placebo tablets; but the hic of that experiment is that to get that daily amount of resveratrol into our body we would have to drink gallons of wine per day! When we visualize people dining and drinking wine, do we see them gulping down their food and drinks? Rarely; they generally eat slowly and are relaxed and simultaneously indulge in lot of conversation, whether they are French or Italians. All these factors, besides the wine, contribute to better cardiovascular health. Besides it has been found that the same genes which control the wake/sleep cycle can also play a role in rendering people alcoholic, especially when there has been mutation or damage of such genes.

However, some consistent results had emerged after hundreds of research papers were scrutinized — that senior citizens may benefit from a daily intake of a small dose of alcohol; they suffer fewer strokes, less hypertension and cardiovascular complications. And if we do have an out of the box word puzzle to solve, then we’ll do better than the sober contestants if we take a moderate dose of alcohol just before. Most probably it would diminish our working memory temporarily, allowing the grey cells to wander, and as more neurons are recruited, we would be seeing that puzzle from different angles simultaneously and solve it quicker.

The expert Annie Britton, an epidemiologist at University College London, believes that “there are people who are passionate that there are health benefits, and there are others who are equally passionate that it is all down to errors in the data”.

The good news from advanced countries is that the younger generation is indulging less and less in alcohol consumption; may be it has witnessed the ravages of the spirits on their post-war grandparents or parents; they are perhaps more educated, more exposed to the publicity about dangers of alcohol; they have less binge drinking. Now that they have all sorts of electronic social media to keep in touch with friends perpetually, do they need any social lubricant?

The man who discovered alcohol died centuries ago, but his spirit still lives on… and haunts us.


*  Published in print edition on 8 December 2017

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