Diseases Caused by Alcoholism


The diseases caused by alcoholism result from the human body’s inability to metabolize alcohol in large quantities. We do fine with small amounts of alcohol – in fact, the bacteria in our guts produce a bit as a consequence of normal digestion. These small amounts are broken down and used as an additional food source. It is only when alcohol is taken in quantities that our bodies cannot process well that problems occur.

Two primary damaging mechanisms

There are two main mechanisms that damage the body in alcoholism. The first is direct damage to the gut. The enzymes needed to break down the alcohol are not available here (they are mostly in the liver) and high concentrations of alcohol damages the lining of the stomach and gut – leading to bleeding, ulcer formation and increase risk for cancer. The second mechanism has to do with how alcohol is broken down and removed from the body.

Alcohol is broken down in a series of steps that produces toxic substances. These can be handled if the amount of alcohol is small, but as quantities increase, they build up and cause the diseases we associate with alcoholism. For example, acetaldehyde (the first step in the breakdown) needs liver enzymes and associated vitamins to continue along the metabolic pathway. If the levels of alcohol get too high the liver cannot cope. Acetaldehyde builds up, escapes from the liver and starts to attack cells in other organs. There is also direct damage to the liver itself, causing cirrhosis. The depletion of the B vitamins leads to nerve damage, peripheral neuropathy and eventually, brain damage.

Notably, the nutritional deficiencies aren’t caused by alcohol directly, but because alcohol metabolism provides enough calories that other foods aren’t consumed. A pint of hard liquor a day gives enough calories to live on. The alcohol alone does not, however, provide other essential nutrients or minerals. This means that over time, alcoholics develop severe deficiencies for many essential nutrients.

The “chain of tragedy” happens even with binge drinkers – a hangover is caused by acetaldehyde build up (along with dehydration) and depletion of both B and other water soluble vitamins. In social drinking, the hangovers are less severe and there is a period of recovery between poisonings. This isn’t true for alcoholism in general. Simply put, continued drinking leads to a continuing cycle of damage to organs and cells in the body with no chance to heal. The damage accumulates until it gets bad enough to become a named disease.

Some diseases and medical conditions caused by alcoholism are: Cirrhosis, pancreatitis, osteoporosis, brain damage, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, nervous system disorders, sexual dysfunction, anxiety, depression, psychosis, cancer, early menopause and amenorrhea.

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