Paracelsus, in the 1500s, was a philosopher, botanist and scientist. He was the first physician to notice that some diseases have psychological causes. He’s most famous for being the first physician to wonder about the effects of toxins on the body. In that regard, he’s credited as the founder of toxicology. His insight that there’s no such thing as a toxic substance, just toxic doses.
His discovery that any substance in a low enough dose has beneficial effects on the body. Any substance in a high enough dose was toxic to the body. Examples of this can be any substance such as vitamins, heavy metals, pesticides, cyanide, viruses, bacteria, water, whatever. It perplexes many doctors, scientists, and lay people who still view certain substances as inherently toxic while other substances as inherently safe. Paracelsus showed that it’s not the substance of a thing that makes it toxic, it’s the dose. That’s why I want to talk about a legal drug called alcohol.
I drink alcohol. Sometimes I lose count of my allotment when I’m at social functions. I pay for it the next day. However, I know why, and, it is the dosage. I also take precautions before and after to get the alcohol out of my body because it depleted my mineral status. A review article entitled, “Alcohol and endothelial function: a brief review,” points out how important dosage is to the effects of alcohol on the body. The authors state that, “Regular light to moderate alcohol intake appears to confer protection against both coronary artery disease and ischemic stroke. In contrast, heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk of coronary artery disease and the risk of both hemorrhagic and ischemic stroke.”
It looks like the main reason drinking alcohol is healthy is because in the right dose it stimulates nitric oxide formation. Our bodies make nitric oxide from the amino acid arginine in the presence of oxygen and an enzyme called nitric oxide synthase (NOS). Nitric oxide is the primary determinant of how well our circulation works. It increases circulation by opening up (vasodilating) our arteries and small blood vessels. Without enough nitric oxide, the vessels tighten up, and blood flow decreases. Alcohol increases nitric oxide production. There are other foods and supplements that can do this too, but that is another subject.
Alcohol does it by increasing the activity of NOS, the enzyme that forms nitric oxide. It can do it effectively. In the body, nitric oxide is converted to nitrite and nitrate. These substances are good indicators of how much nitric oxide your body is producing. The higher the levels of either nitrite or nitrate, the higher the levels of nitric oxide. One study looked at the effect of three ounces of alcohol spirits in a group of men and women and found that the alcohol doubled their nitrite and nitrate levels over the next 12 hours.
However, this is important to say that DOSE is important. The authors discovered that higher doses have the opposite effect. According to the authors, “It is clear that acute low doses of alcohol increase both the release of nitric oxide and NOS expression, and augment endothelium-mediated vasodilatation (opening blood vessels), whereas higher doses impair endothelial functions (close blood vessels).” High doses are not the only problem. The article goes on to show that not only do high doses not improve nitric oxide production, they actually decrease production. Other clinical studies on the biological effects of alcohol entitled,”Risk of Dementia and alcohol and wine consumption: a review of recent results,” is another study that you may want to read below if you want to learn more about this area and alcohol use.
This study looked at a large population of men and women in Bordeaux, France. The researchers found that people drinking from three to four standard glasses of wine per day were at a 81 percent less likely to get dementia of any type than non-drinkers. And they were 72 percent less likely to get Alzheimer’s. These reductions took into account age, sex, education, occupation, baseline cognitive performances and other possible factors that could have affected the results. It was clear from this study that drinking alcohol had a markedly positive effect when it came to dementia across the board.
Another, called the Rotterdam study, had much lower amounts of alcohol and had the same protective effect. Drinking one to three drinks per day led to a 42 percent reduction in all forms of dementia, and a 71 percent decrease in vascular dementia. Vascular dementia, (which my mother did not drink alcohol most of her life and had been diagnosed initially, and then Alzheimer’s disease), is caused by decreased circulation to the brain, and is associated with decreased levels of nitric oxide. The authors of the Rotterdam study also noticed that the positive effects of moderate alcohol intake was not affected by different forms of alcohol. Wine, spirits, beer all had the same effects. In the right alcohol doses, it prevents dementia of all kinds.
With ischemic strokes, the most common causes of serious functional impairment in the U.S. and other developed countries, where the blood supply to the brain is suddenly cut off. Eighty percent of all strokes are ischemic strokes. Several studies of the risk of ischemic strokes and alcohol have shown that heavy drinking increases the risk. However, according to the authors of this study, “Regular light to moderate drinking seemed to be associated with a decreased risk for ischemic stroke.” Protects against strokes and against dementia.
In a huge study published in 2000, the authors wanted to see the connection between alcohol consumption and the risk of coronary artery disease. In this case, the authors looked at all of the population studies that were published from 1966 to 1998 regarding alcohol and coronary artery disease. They found 196 studies, but settled on 28 high quality studies. They found that men and women drinking up to 20 grams (about 3/4 a glass of wine, 3/4 of an ounce of spirits and 3/4 can of beer) a day of alcohol there was a 20 percent decrease in risk for coronary artery disease. When they looked at larger amounts of up to 72 grams per day, the protection from alcohol decreased to only four percent (72 ounces is about 2 1/2 ounces of spirits, 2 1/2 glasses of wine or 2 1/2 cans of beer).
The research is pretty clear that drinking alcohol has a healthy effect on the body. However, overdoing it is detrimental to our bodies. In general, it seems like the best effects happen when drinking one to two glasses of wine or two cans of beer or two ounces of liquor per day. That seems to be the optimal dosage range needed to get enough of an increase in nitric oxide production to have strong clinical effects. If you do insist to drink, and within this range, you may need to support your body, especially the liver, to metabolize the alcohol (acetaldehyde) and a regular exercise program to get rid of the excess sugar (glucose) alcohols in your blood.
Corrao G, Rubbiati L, et al. Alcohol and coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis. Addiction. 2000 Oct; 95(10): 1505-23.
Curr Clin Pharmacol. 2007 May; 2(2): 145-53.
Deng XS, Deitrich R.A. Ethanol metabolism and effects: nitric oxide and its interaction.
Letenneur L. Risk of dementia and alcohol and wine consumption: a review of recent results. Biol Res. 2004; 37(2): 189-93.
Puddley IB, Zilkens RR et al. Alcohol and endothelial function: a brief review. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 2001 Dec; 28(12): 1020-4.