MANILA, December 29, 2003 (STAR) YOUR DOSE OF MEDICINE By Charles C. Chante, Md - Alcohol can wreak havoc on every part of the digestive system. How much is too much? The answer might surprise you. One patient (X) never considered himself an alcoholic. More a "social drinker", would enjoy a couple of martinis after work, winding down before dinner. While doing yard work on the weekends, he would down four or five bottles of beer. Even his wife, whose father had been an alcoholic, thought patientís drinking was harmless. But in April of 1998, 54-year-old liver proved otherwise. He was diagnosed with alcoholic cirrhosis, a disease that would progress so quickly he would need a new liver by the end of the year. Like this patient, most of us associate alcohol with how it impairs the brain, seldom realizing its effects on digestive health or just how deadly it can be. But each year more than 11,000 people in the United States will die from alcoholic cirrhosis, according to the National Institute on Alcohol. Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and thousands more will suffer from other digestive disorders and diseases, ranging from heartburn to pancreatitis.

One too many. Studies have proven that alcohol in moderation not only offers psychological and social benefits, but also may lower the risk of heart disease, according to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency (NCADD). But a fine line exists between the point at which alcohol improves the condition of your heart and the point at which it begins to ravage your digestive system. Because sensitivity to alcohol varies from person to person, depending on age, weight, gender and medical history, the definition of moderate alcohol consumption varies.

In general, the NCADD recommends no more than one drink per day for healthy women and two drinks per day for healthy men. When counting drinks, keep in mind that one drink is considered to be four to five ounces of wine, 10 ounces of a wine cooler, 12 ounces of beer or 1.25 ounces of distilled liquor (80-proof whisky, vodka, scotch or rum). Though patient didnít consider himself an alcoholic, by clinical definitions he was nevertheless drinking more than his body could handle. Nightly, his two seemingly harmless martinis contained a total alcohol content of about 60 milliliters, or the equivalent of four drinks Ė well over the amount considered to be moderate.

Five beers while working in his yard more than doubled the "safe" daily amount. Like this patient, another patient (Y) didnít recognize the harmful effects of his drinking until it was almost too late. In his 20s, patient Y played sports three seasons of the year, participating in countless pre- and post-game parties. He would often stay late at work, downing beer after beer with co-workers. When he was diagnosed with cirrhosis at just 28 years of age, he attempted to cut back on his alcohol intake. For patient Y, however, low intake meant cutting back to four or five beers in an evening, which was still too much. Neither patient X nor Y was fully aware of the toxic effect alcohol would eventually have on his digestive system. Once you cross the line of moderation, you have a 10 to 35 percent risk of developing a serious liver disease. But donít be fooled. Even if you are part of the fortunate majority with no liver disease, you may still develop another digestive disorder or disease.

Traveling the path to digestive destruction. Problems in the digestive system can begin with the first sip of alcohol Ė when small amounts are absorbed by the mouth and throat, irritating sensitive membranes. Prolonged, heavy consumption would eventually lead to cancer of the mouth or throat, according to the NCADD.

The alcohol then travels down the esophagus can become inflamed, causing bleeding or eventually cancer. Other digestive disorders can also arise, like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which causes significant pain and discomfort. Once the alcohol passes through the esophagus into the stomach, it can cause a host of other painful digestive problems Ė gastritis (inflammation of the stomach), irritation or eruption of ulcers, bleeding, vomiting and indigestion. In the small and large intestines, alcohol causes more inflammation, sometimes leading to bleeding and cancer. But it doesnít stop there. The pancreas and liver may be the most affected digestive tract organs. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to potentially fatal, diabetes, alcoholic hepatitis and liver failure. Thereís no arguing how merciless alcohol can be on the digestive system, but perhaps, like patient X, you donít believe youíre at risk. Alcohol has never kept you from work, has never interfered with your family, has never become a crutch. Nevertheless, you might want to take another look at those drinks and what they could cost you, because sometimes even moderation isnít enough.

Is moderation the key? To the drinker, alcohol not only tastes good, but also promotes feelings of euphoria. Its feel-good effects make it difficult to believe such beverages as beer and wine can be so offensive to the digestive system. Furthermore, a whopping 90 percent of beer is just water. The alcohol (or ethanol) content is what damages the digestive system. Even after concentration of only eight to 14 percent in wine and just 4 percent in most beer, the liver can process and metabolize only one alcoholic drink each hour. If you drink more alcohol than your liver can process, the alcohol floats through all parts of your body, circulating until the liver enzymes can finally process it. The pancreas is hit especially hard by this turn of events.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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