He was a young boy barely in his twenties. He was brought in during emergency hours with sudden severe breathlessness. While interrogating the family about his illness, it was known that he was drinking large amounts of alcohol daily.
Unfortunately, by the time test results came, he had died. It was indeed very sad for the family as well as for the doctors attending to him. It seemed that his heart was damaged by alcohol.
Alcohol causes damage to many body parts including the heart. Regular consumption of alcohol is known to cause various cardiac problems.
Alcohol taken daily in moderate amounts can lead to damage to the heart muscle, a condition known as alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Sometimes a binge of heavy drinking can cause disturbance in the beating of the heart, known as arrhythmia. This can precipitate sudden heart failure.
Apart from this, alcohol increases level of total quantity of fats in the blood and the deposition of fat on the inner layers of blood vessels (atherosclerosis). It also raises blood sugar levels precipitating and aggravating diabetes. It also contributes to obesity. All these conditions increase the risk of having a heart failure or heart attack.
Alcohol is also known to cause hypertension. Studies have shown that hypertension can be controlled by just giving up alcohol. It is also a risk factor for strokes.
Many people are led by the theory that a small amount of alcohol prevents clumping of platelets and hence is beneficial for preventing heart diseases. This effect is negligible as compared to the harms it causes. One feels good after taking alcohol only because of its euphoria producing effect on the brain.
There is no hard and fast unit to quantify the safe amount of alcohol consumed. The ill effects of alcohol on the body vary according to genetic and physical factors, type of alcohol consumed and other risk factors present. For some individuals a small amount of alcohol may become much, while a few may be able to tolerate a greater amount of alcohol.
Women develop adverse effects of alcohol in much lesser quantities than men, because their liver is not able to handle alcohol as well and detoxify the body. Alcohol remains for a longer time in a woman’s body as it is metabolized slowly.
The same thing happens in adolescents and the elderly. The elderly are vulnerable to develop heart problems due to many other causes. At the same times, alcohol aggravates and accelerates the ageing process.
It is said that women start getting heart problems if they drink about 4 units of alcohol everyday, while men can take up to 8 units or so. But this is only a theoretical aspect. Practically, once a person starts drinking regularly, he or she becomes dependant on it both physically and mentally. This compels them to drink regularly and in increasing amounts.
Alcohol affects the nutritional status of a person because it supplies empty calories, i.e. calories without nutrient substances. Thus gradually a person becomes obese and devoid of essential nutrients. Malnutrition, particularly protein deficiency thus induced can also cause heart failure.
When an individual takes alcohol on a regular basis and wants to give it up, he suffers from what is known as withdrawal syndrome. The body feels sick without alcohol and demands it. Thus a vicious circle is formed, where one finds it difficult to give up alcohol.
There are many healthy ways to prevent heart diseases, instead of taking small amounts of alcohol. One would not be able to judge as to when this small amount changes to moderate and then severe drinking.
If one is really keen to keep the body healthy and free from heart diseases, wisdom dictates that one does not take alcohol at all. Even if somebody has started drinking it, is better to quit early before it causes severe damage to the body including causing heart problems.
Pande is a specialist Internal medicine-Ruhengeri Hospital