Debunking Myths About Alcohol

Posted on May 2, 2013 in Specials

By Sukant Khurana and Brooks Robinson: 

India is a country of increasing alcohol consumption but there are many myths that surround alcohol and alcoholism in India. While for those who do not drink, the safest advise is to avoid drinking but what is not safe at all is for the Indian population to have an oversimplified black and white picture of alcohol consumption. For those who enjoy a drink or two, there are healthy alcohol drinking habits and if myths around alcohol are removed we can have more responsible alcohol consumption in India.

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MYTH: Alcohol is always bad

Many view alcohol as a pure evil that can’t do any good. In general, it causes more harm than good, but the effects of alcohol are a function of the amount of alcohol consumed, the place, the company, the time of the day and the activities partaken after drinking. Alcohol consumption comes with both positive and negative health consequences.  In large, highly intoxicating doses, alcohol is almost always negative.  It depresses the human central nervous system causing effects ranging from a reduction in reaction time to alterations in spatial judgment and even fatality with a high enough dose. Regular consumption of a large amount of alcohol damages vital organs such as the liver and kidney. Alcoholics develop a dependency on alcohol to the point that they cannot function in its absence, and can even experience epileptic seizures when alcohol is abruptly withdrawn. Even small amounts can be highly dangerous for people with a liver infection or disease, or people taking depression medications or those that cause an increased level of sedation.

However, in small doses, alcohol can be beneficial to a healthy adult. Alcohol can act as a social lubricant and bond people in long-lasting friendships. Regular consumption of low but not high, amounts of alcohol can also have many health benefits. Low amounts of alcohol, one to three drinks of alcohol a day, have been correlated with reduced dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, improved cardiac functioning, and reduced stroke incidences, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, gallbladder diseases, arthritis, renal cell carcinoma, thyroid cancer, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. If one does not drink, these possible mild benefits should not encourage someone to start drinking, as correlation should not be confused with causation. All this extensive literature shows convincingly is that in mild amounts there are likely not significant health consequences for healthy subjects. Pregnant women should avoid alcohol altogether because regular consumption of high amounts of alcohol can result in fetal alcohol syndrome in the unborn child. For some women, even small doses of ethanol can be damaging to the fetus. People with liver problems and those taking certain antidepressants should also stay away from alcohol altogether. Those who do not drink alcohol should stay away from it because the dangers of excess far outweigh the benefits of moderation. The same health benefits can be accessed from many other food sources and regular exercise. Those who do consume alcohol, however, should pick up healthy habits of moderate drinking and avoid excessive consumption.

MYTH: Alcohol makes people happier

While the initial effects of alcohol can include euphoria and hyper-excitation, alcohol in higher amounts is actually a numbing influence. The depressant effects of alcohol can manifest as sleepiness or lethargy, an inability to comprehend situations, altered judgments and mood changes. Interestingly, alcohol affects everyone somewhat differently.  Some people become very sad and withdrawn, while others become more jovial. It is good to know how the drug affects you so you do not end up regretting a drinking session. In a recent scientific study, risk-prone individuals lost their fear of negative consequences when they consumed alcohol, whereas alcohol did not elicit any change in a group that was averse to risk. Alcohol only makes people happy because of creating social bonds and friendship. This is only possible when people are not drunk out of their senses but enjoying mild amounts of alcohol.

MYTH: Alcohol is not a serious drug.  Talk to me about narcotics.

Alcohol is one of the most widely abused substances in the world. It is highly addictive and it is often more readily available than other narcotics. It can cause devastating health maladies and estrange people from their families and friends. Alcohol also causes a vast number of deaths each year. Apart from aggravating health conditions and directly causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, excessive drinking indirectly impacts society by breaking up poor families and increasing incarceration. If excessive drinking is not serious, we are not sure what is.

MYTH: Alcohol makes sex better

Alcohol lowers people’s inhibitions and often makes people feel more comfortable in social situations. This makes approaching strangers and engaging in sexual behaviors more likely for drunken individuals, but alcohol most definitely does not make sex more pleasurable. In fact, alcohol dims sensation, which does not improve sex. It can also prevent men from getting or maintaining an erection and even from ejaculating. In addition, it can decrease the female sex drive. Given the resulting lack of inhibitions and the impairment of judgment, alcohol has been implicated in a significant decrease in the use of condoms and other safe sex practices. The influence of alcohol in the spread of AIDS is a burning research topic with many studies implicating drunken actions responsible for an increase in the spread of the disease.

MYTH: My family has alcohol problems, but I won’t get addicted because I know how to handle my drinks.

Increased vulnerability for addiction has a strong genetic component and is passed from parents to their kids through both genetic and cultural ways. Cultural factors can also strongly influence many of our behaviors, for example, domestic violence also runs in families. If any of your family members have addiction issues, it is wise to stay away from alcohol.

MYTH: I am more careful when I drink, so it is OK to drive

Drinking and driving is extremely dangerous because alcohol slows reaction time, depth perception and judgment. In some parts of the world, where there is better monitoring and recording of accidents than in India, it has been shown that almost half of all fatal motor vehicle accidents are caused by alcohol.

MYTH: I can sober up quickly by drinking coffee.

Drinking coffee or any other stimulant does not speed up ethanol metabolism. You may feel more awake, but the alcohol is still present in your body and therefore many functions are still impaired. Coffee can only help in limited ways and is not a sobering agent, and definitely not a license to drive drunk. One can consciously hydrate the day after drinking to recover better from the effects of a hangover, but no approach, no pill, no amount of coffee or tea, should make you think that you can operate heavy machinery or drive after drinking.

MYTH: If the government banned alcohol, there would be fewer alcohol-related problems

Unfortunately, history has taught us that this is not true either. Prohibition in the USA in the early twentieth century was a colossal disaster. Not only does prohibition, as exemplified by the current ban in many of the North East Indian states and Gujarat, fail to curtail the consumption of alcohol, but it also increases crime and causes a huge circulation of illegally-produced alcohol that is often very dangerous. Prohibition in India implemented by Morarji Desai in the Bombay presidency was directly responsible for the creation of the first Dons of the Bombay underworld because it handed them the control of the alcohol business instead of the licensed shops having control. Indirect prohibition on the poor caused by raising alcohol and molasses taxes fails to reduce the consumption of alcohol by the poor because it turns them to hooch seeking. Death tolls due to hooch consumption in late 2011 in West Bengal should be an eye opener to anyone wanting prohibition or maintaining increased taxation on alcohol. Prohibition and social taboos result in binge drinking in shoddy places, along with increased incidents of drunk driving. The best strategy to combat alcoholism is education, women empowerment, socio-economic equity, maintaining social and family bonds and strict enforcement of the illegality of drunk driving.

In large amounts, alcohol is a very dangerous drug that can and does cause death and destruction. However, in smaller doses alcohol can have a positive effect for a large segment of the population. So if you enjoy alcohol, enjoy it responsibly. Follow the Japanese concept of “haragei”, or the old Indian concept of “madhyam marga” which encourages not filling yourself up to your throat with food or drink alike. So, if one must drink there are responsible ways of enjoying a drink or two.

 

Dr. Sukant Khurana is a New York based neuroscientist, innovator, artist and author of Indian origin. Brooks Robinson is an Austin, TX, USA based neuroscientist interested in alcohol addiction, who has extensively collaborated with Dr. Khurana in developing anima models of alcoholism. Work of Dr. Sukant Khurana can be viewed at his website www.brainnart.com

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