Glenn Ellis

*While driving home on Thanksgiving Eve, I noticed a line half-a-block long coming out of a State Liquor store.

Folks were lined up, waiting to go in to purchase their “holiday spirits”, preparing to kick off the holiday season.

Of course, I went right into, “Glenn Ellis Thought Mode”, and started processing this annual ritual behavior.

It dawned on me that this would be a good topic to focus on for a health column.

I wondered how many of those people understood exactly how alcohol consumption affected their body and their health.

So, in the “spirit” of living the best life possible, I want to share some brief insight into what happens to some of the key organs of the body form alcohol consumption.

There are almost 78 organs in a human body that vary according to their sizes, functions or actions! ( a topic for another column, at another time)

An organ is a collection of millions of cells, which group together to perform single function in a human body.

Let’s begin with the organ most associated with drinking alcohol: the Liver.

The Liver is the second largest organ of male or female human body. The liver receives blood full of digested food from the gut. It stores some foods and delivers the rest to the other cells through blood.

There probably isn’t a more vital—yet underappreciated—organ in the human body than the liver. While we may recognize, in the most general terms, the role that the liver plays, many of us don’t fully understand its many functions or vulnerabilities, particularly with regard to alcohol. And yet the alcohol-liver connection is critical, as more than 2 million Americans suffer from liver disease caused by alcohol.

By performing more than 500 different functions, the liver is essential to our health. Its primary role is to filter all the blood in our bodies by breaking down and eliminating toxins and storing excess blood sugar. It also produces enzymes that break down fats, manufactures proteins that regulate blood clotting, and stores a number of essential vitamins and minerals. All told, the liver keeps us alive by enabling us to digest food, absorb nutrients, control infections, and get rid of toxic substances in our bodies.

While liver problems can be inherited, or developed in response to certain viruses or chemicals, excessive alcohol use plays a major role. To the human body, alcohol is a toxin that is broken down by the liver as the body begins the process of getting rid of these foreign components. However, chronic heavy drinking causes the liver to become fatty. This condition makes the liver more vulnerable to dangerous inflammation, such as alcoholic hepatitis, and its associated complications. With continued drinking, persistent inflammation causes fibrous tissue to increase in the liver, which prevents the necessary blood supply from reaching the liver cells. Without the oxygen and other nutrients supplied by this blood, the liver cells eventually die and are replaced with scar tissue, creating a condition known as cirrhosis. In mild cases, the liver can actually make repairs and continue to function. However, advanced cirrhosis causes continued deterioration and liver failure.

Alcoholic liver disease can also damage the brain. The liver breaks down alcohol—and the toxins it releases. During this process, alcohol’s byproducts damage liver cells. These damaged liver cells no longer function as well as they should and allow too much of these toxic substances, ammonia and manganese in particular, to travel to the brain. These substances proceed to damage brain cells.

      The Brain is the third largest and major organ of human body. The brain controls the actions of all the body parts. There are about 100 billion cells in human brain, which make about 100 trillion nerve connections with nerve cells for messaging.

Alcohol can cause your neurotransmitters to relay information too slowly, so you feel extremely drowsy. Alcohol-related disruptions to the neurotransmitter balance also can trigger mood and behavioral changes, including depression, agitation, memory loss, and even seizures.

Long-term, heavy drinking causes alterations in the neurons, such as reductions in the size of brain cells. As a result of these and other changes, brain mass shrinks and the brain’s inner cavity grows bigger. These changes may affect a wide range of abilities, such as motor coordination, temperature regulation, sleep, mood, and various cognitive functions, including learning and memory.

      The Heart is the fifth largest human body organ. The major function of the heart is to pump the blood to every part of the body to deliver the energy to every body cell.

Long-term heavy drinking weakens the heart muscle, causing a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. A weakened heart droops and stretches and cannot contract effectively. As a result, it cannot pump enough blood to sufficiently nourish the organs. In some cases, this blood flow shortage causes severe damage to organs and tissues. Symptoms of cardiomyopathy include shortness of breath and other breathing difficulties, fatigue, swollen legs and feet, and irregular heartbeat. It can even lead to heart failure.

Both binge drinking and long-term drinking can affect how quickly a heart beats. The heart depends on an internal pacemaker system to keep it pumping consistently and at the right speed. Alcohol disturbs this pacemaker system and causes the heart to beat too rapidly, or irregularly. These heart rate abnormalities are called arrhythmias. Drinking to excess on a particular occasion, especially when you generally don’t drink, can trigger either of these irregularities. Over the long-term, chronic drinking changes the course of electrical impulses that drive the heart’s beating, which creates arrhythmia.

Both binge drinking and long-term heavy drinking can lead to strokes, even in people without coronary heart disease. Recent studies show that people who binge drink are about 56 percent more likely than people who never binge drink to suffer an ischemic stroke over 10 years. Binge drinkers also are about 39 percent more likely to suffer any type of stroke than people who never binge drink. In addition, alcohol exacerbates the problems that often lead to strokes, including hypertension, arrhythmias, and cardiomyopathy.

Chronic alcohol use, as well as binge drinking, can cause high blood pressure, or hypertension. Your blood pressure is a measurement of the pressure your heart creates as it beats, and the pressure inside your veins and arteries. Heavy alcohol consumption triggers the release of certain stress hormones that in turn constrict blood vessels. This elevates blood pressure. In addition, alcohol may affect the function of the muscles within the blood vessels, causing them to constrict and elevate blood pressure.

      The Kidneys are the sixth largest organ in every human body. There are two kidneys in every human being and the average weight of both the kidneys is about 290 grams. The major function of a kidney is to separate the waste material by filtering the blood. Both these kidneys filter our blood 50 times a day. If one kidney stops working the other will enlarge and do the work of two.

Drinking alcohol can hurt your kidneys in many ways and can increase the chance of needing dialysis. It may damage the kidney cells. It increases your chance of developing HBP, a leading cause of kidney disease. Drinking alcohol can interfere with your medicines and make it harder to control your pressure.

Drinking alcohol can cause the kidneys to increase urinary output. This can lead to dehydration. More than two drinks a day can cause a rise in blood pressure. The carbohydrate load from drinking can cause obesity. This could increase the risk of diabetes and diabetic kidney disease. Drinking can interfere with the blood chemistries and increase the ability of the body to protect the kidneys.

Many people who drink are more likely to smoke. Smoking also causes kidney disease.

This is the time of year where many people let it al hang out, and go for broke- drinking and partying like there’s no tomorrow. For others, it’s a time to begin to make pledges and resolutions, which often include stopping drinking alcohol.

My hope is that this information will help you to make an informed decision…

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis  is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and is  a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics.

His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, is due out in December, 2011.

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