Alcohol takes a toll beyond the hangover

With summer approaching, many college students are looking forward to relaxing, enjoying the warm weather, and partying their stress away. While some may be nursing hangovers and trying the latest antidotes for headaches and fuzzy mornings, not as many will be considering the damaging effects of alcohol, a widely used and socially accepted substance.

“Alcohol has direct toxic effects on the gastrointestinal tract and liver, leading to impaired digestion, reduced absorption of nutrients into the blood, and impaired utilization of those nutrients,” states a study performed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“These effects are referred to as secondary malnutrition and can contribute to the progression of liver damage.”

The liver works to excrete all toxins from the body, according to registered dietitian and Santa Monica College nutrition professor Yvonne Ortega. However, it will stop everything to focus on removing harmful substances such as alcohol and drugs.

“The liver must metabolize alcohol,” says Ortega. “If the liver doesn’t have time, [alcohol] accumulates, and the timeline for the liver to process other nutrients becomes longer.”

The liver is responsible for producing bile to help digest fats and proteins for blood plasma, according to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford’s online health information. The essential organ also converts excess glucose into energy, regulates amino acid levels and blood clotting, and removes bacteria from the bloodstream.

These important processes are all inhibited when the liver must first process alcohol.

“The more a person drinks, the longer the other tasks of the liver will take to be completed,” Ortega says.

According to “Nutrition Now,” a nutrition textbook used at SMC, alcohol is an “energy-dense” and “empty-calorie” substance, because its calories do not provide essential nutrients.

“Alcohol consumption, particularly at heavy drinking levels, not only influences the drinker’s diet but also affects the metabolism of those nutrients that are consumed,” according to the NIAAA’s study.

While some studies suggest that a glass of red wine per day may help prevent disease, Ortega emphasizes the details of the study.

“The research done only helped people over 35 years of age with a family history of heart disease,” says Ortega. “There’s no reason for 21-year-olds to be drinking daily.”

“Nutrition Now” states that frequent alcohol intake increases the risk of developing high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, central nervous system disorders, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and cancers of the throat, stomach and bladder,.

“It’s upsetting to see the connection people have with it, and not understanding the internal effects,” says Ortega.

Liver damage can be indicated by blood tests that check liver enzymes, as a healthy liver should not secrete enzymes into the blood.

“Some people may misdiagnose damage to their liver with anemia,” says Ortega, pointing out that liver damage can be noted by fatigue.

“The liver is very resilient,” says Ortega. “Once you stop drinking, it can help, but it has to be a personal decision, if [you] value health.”

“Nutrition Now” defines alcoholism as “an illness characterized by a dependence on alcohol, and by a level of alcohol intake that interferes with health, family and social relations, and job performance.”

Harvey, an Alcoholics Anonymous member who declined to provide his last name, is an ex-Marine and Vietnam War veteran who says that alcoholism is a mental obsession.

“I knew that I had a drinking problem,” says Harvey. “You have to admit it to yourself first. It does something for me that it wouldn’t do for you.”

Harvey began drinking at the age of 17, and joined AA at 34 before reaching sobriety at 38.

“I was in the Marine Corps, and it was a social situation,” Harvey says. “There was pizza and beer, and that’s what we had. It’s not the taste of it that I loved; beer tastes awful. I liked the feeling of being drunk.”

The use of alcohol among adolescents has increased, while the average age that teenagers begin to drink has decreased to 14, according to “Nutrition Now.”

“The younger individuals are when they begin to drink, the greater likelihood that they will develop a drinking problem at some point in life,” according to the textbook.

The text also states that a person’s lifestyle, defined by what they consume, accounts for 51 percent of what contributes to death among adults 75 years or older.

“There’s a lot of denial,” says Harvey. “A lot of people go as long as they can without admitting it. It can be killing you and you won’t admit it.”