OVERWEIGHT AND OBESITY
One gram of alcohol contains seven calories, which means that a single UK unit
contains 56 calories – as alcohol has no nutritional value these are known as
‘empty calories’. While many alcoholic drinks are highly calorific, public awareness
remains low, which is why some health organisations have been campaigning for
compulsory calorie information on alcohol labelling – one pint of 4 per cent ABV
beer or a 250ml glass of wine contain 180 calories each. People are also more likely
to eat unhealthy, highly calorific foods while under the influence of alcohol, further
increasing the likelihood of weight gain.
BRAIN DAMAGE AND DEMENTIA
Regular heavy drinking above recommended levels – particularly in the form of
binge drinking – increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other
common forms of dementia, such as vascular dementia. Long-term drinking at
harmful levels, meanwhile, can lead to a deficiency in vitamin B1 (thiamine) which
the body uses to build blood vessels in the brain – deficiency causes the vessels to
leak and damage surrounding brain tissue. Alcohol-related brain damage is an
umbrella term that covers a number of conditions, including ‘alcoholic dementia’
and Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome – while these are not technically types of
dementia, they share symptoms such as impaired memory or thinking.
Alcohol acts as an irritant to the digestive system and increases the stomach’s
production of acid, which can cause inflammation of the stomach lining known as
gastritis, while heavy drinking can be a cause of acid reflux and, over a prolonged
period, peptic ulcers. Chronic alcohol consumption also alters the composition of
bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, reducing the number of beneficial bacteria
and allowing an increase in unhealthy bacteria.
MALNUTRITION AND VITAMIN DEFICIENCY
Alcohol also reduces the pancreas’s production of the digestive enzymes that help
to break down carbohydrates and fat, making it harder for the body to absorb vital
nutrients such as proteins and vitamins.
Alcohol’s effect on the pancreas also inhibits the body’s ability to absorb calcium
and vitamin D, both essential for bone health. This makes heavy drinking a risk
factor for osteoporosis, a condition that weakens bones and makes them more
likely to break.
Alongside its potential damage to the liver and other organs, alcohol can also have
an impact on the immune system, affecting the number, function and survival of
the body’s immune cells. This can put people at increased risk of contracting viral
and bacterial infections – according to WHO there is a ‘causal relationship’
between harmful drinking and ‘incidence of infectious diseases such as
tuberculosis as well as the course of HIV/AIDS’. Alcohol-related liver damage also
increases the body’s susceptibility to bacterial infection.
Alcohol poisoning is a potentially fatal condition that occurs when a person drinks
a dangerous quantity of alcohol, usually over a short period such as in binge
drinking episodes. In severe cases people can choke on, or inhale, their vomit, or
have seizures or heart attacks.
To this wide range of physical and mental health conditions can be added acute
incidents such as alcohol-related injuries and accidents, including those caused by
drink driving. Alcohol is also a significant contributory factor to domestic violence
and violent crime generally – the Annual Crime Survey for England and Wales
records that almost half of the victims of violent incidents perceived the offenders
to be under the influence of alcohol.
Alcohol misuse can also lead to financial, employment and housing problems as
well as relationship difficulties and parenting issues – it is estimated that around
200,000 children in England are currently living with a dependent drinker.
Mixing drug use and alcohol consumption is common,
but alcohol can react with other substances – legal or illegal
– in unpredictable and potentially harmful ways
Combining cannabis use with alcohol can magnify the effects of THC, the
drug’s main psychoactive ingredient, causing lethargy, dizziness, impaired
coordination and anxiety.
Using alcohol with heroin increases the respiratory depression effects of the
latter, which places the user at greater risk of overdose or respiratory failure.
Many fatal heroin overdoses also involve alcohol.
COCAINE AND AMPHETAMINES
Cocaine use offsets the depressive effects of alcohol, which allows people to stay
awake and alert for longer while drinking. They are therefore more likely to drink
larger amounts and lose track of their consumption. Combining cocaine and
alcohol also causes the liver to produce a toxic substance called cocaethylene,
which takes longer to process than alcohol alone and is more harmful than
either substance in isolation. Drinking and taking cocaine at the same time can
cause arrhythmias – irregular heartbeat – and other heart problems, as well as
stroke, seizures, anxiety, paranoia and aggressive behaviour.
As with cocaine, amphetamines increase the amount of alcohol needed to
feel its effects, meaning people are likely to drink larger amounts over longer
periods. With both cocaine and amphetamine, the severe ‘come down’ mixed
with an alcohol hangover can cause depression and anxiety, while a lengthy
drinking session fuelled by either drug increases the risk of alcohol poisoning,
blackouts and accidents.
BENZODIAZEPINES AND OTHER SEDATIVES
Alcohol and sedatives both act as a central nervous system depressant,
slowing brain activity. Using them together can cause confusion and impaired
judgement, dizziness, severe drowsiness and lethargy, as well as problems with
coordination and memory.
These drugs again combine with alcohol as an extreme central nervous system
depressant, impairing coordination and reactions.
Alcohol and MDMA both increase dehydration, a factor in most MDMA-related
deaths. Combining the two can also put extra strain on the kidneys and liver.
NEW PSYCHOACTIVE SUBSTANCES (NPS)
NPS is a broad term used to cover a range of substances – the best known of
which are synthetic cannabinoids such as ‘spice’ or cathinone stimulants like
mephedrone – that were previously known as ‘legal highs’. Little is known of
the potential long-term effects – and, in some cases, even the ingredients – of
many NPS, so combining them with alcohol increases the risk of unpredictable
and potentially dangerous outcomes.
Wider Health Series | DDN | 3