Drink and Drugs News DDN 1806 - Page 17

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. DIGESTIVE PROBLEMS 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. OSTEOPOROSIS 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. INFECTIOUS DISEASES 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 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. OTHER ISSUES 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. www.drinkanddrugsnews.com REACTIONS WITH OTHER DRUGS Mixing drug use and alcohol consumption is common, but alcohol can react with other substances – legal or illegal – in unpredictable and potentially harmful ways CANNABIS Combining cannabis use with alcohol can magnify the effects of THC, the drug’s main psychoactive ingredient, causing lethargy, dizziness, impaired coordination and anxiety. HEROIN 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. GHB/GBL These drugs again combine with alcohol as an extreme central nervous system depressant, impairing coordination and reactions. MDMA 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