Risk at the bottom of the bottle

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 November, 1995, 12:00am

THE tragic death of a young bride following a drinking binge at her own wedding reception highlights the dangers of alcohol.

Serious problems can arise if a person passes out after heavy drinking. Professor Julian Critchley at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Department of Clinical Pharmacology said a person could die if he or she is sick while lying unconscious on their back.

If the person then inhales, he or she may choke on their own vomit, causing suffocation, Professor Critchley said.

He said that those in danger after passing out through drink should be rolled on to their side.

But he added that although the genetic makeup of southern Chinese meant fewer of them were able to metabolise alcohol as effectively as Caucasians, the trait was unlikely to put them at risk.

'An enzyme in the liver breaks down the alcohol and metabolises it.

'There is a greater proportion of Chinese than Caucasians in whom this enzyme is not very active, which means they are more likely to get sick and blush after drinking.

'But rather than putting them at risk, this makes them less likely to drink,' said Professor Critchley.

He added that although alcohol causes a drop in blood sugar levels it did not normally create serious problems.

'It is no good drinking on an empty stomach because it can affect your blood sugar level. And a low blood sugar level tends to make you weak.

'It is self-limiting, however, because when you feel unwell, you will stop drinking and eat something.' Doctors, instead, are more concerned with the long-term effects of alcohol.

Research has shown that having more than one or two drinks a week promotes ageing.

Alcohol also adds empty non-nutritional calories that quickly build up as fat.

Alcohol is also linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer, high blood pressure, constipation, cirrhosis and liver cancer.

It can affect the brain and cause depression, anxiety, and violent behaviour.

Its consumption during pregnancy can lead to birth defects.

A recent study by a group of University of Hong Kong doctors also highlights the benefit of giving up alcohol in reducing the risk of oesophageal cancer.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, shows that the risk of oesophageal cancer decreases rapidly over time after a person has stopped drinking.

Researchers said the research could be used in health promotion to encourage behavioural changes.

This was especially relevant to heavy drinkers, who had a very high risk of developing oesophageal cancer.

The study of 400 patients found the risk of oesophageal cancer increased with amount of alcohol, in gram ethanol, consumed.

Light drinking of less than 200 grams a week was not associated with a higher risk.

But those who drink more than 600 grams weekly were nine times more at risk. Both current and former drinkers were at an increased risk compared with teetotallers.

But this decreased with longer periods of abstention.

Although risk falls more rapidly in former moderate rather than heavy drinkers, researchers noted a substantial drop in risk even among former heavy drinkers five to nine years after they gave up alcohol.

Researchers estimated, however, that it would take 15 years, if ever, for heavy drinkers to return to the low-risk levels enjoyed by teetotallers.

But alcohol is not always bad. Studies have shown that moderate consumption of alcohol can have some protective effects against heart attacks and strokes related to blood clots.

A Danish study also published in this year's British Medical Journal shows that wine drinkers have a significantly lower risk of mortality than those who drink other types of alcoholic beverage.

The 12-year study of 6,051 men and 7,234 women in Copenhagen, shows that those who drink three to five glasses of wine a day have about a 50-per-cent lower risk of dying of any cause during the study period.

In assessing the risk of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease, the study says wine drinkers are nearly 60-per-cent less likely to die of these diseases than non-wine drinkers.

Daily beer drinkers who consume three to five beers were 28-per-cent less likely to die from these diseases than non-beer drinkers.

But the study - to determine if reduction in overall mortality is dependent on the kind of alcohol consumed - also shows that drinking three to five beers a day increased the overall risk of mortality by 22 per cent when compared with non-beer drinkers.

Consuming the same amount of hard liquor, such as whisky, increased the risk by 36 per cent.

Other studies show that as women have a lower risk of heart disease than men, and light to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, alcohol's benefits on the heart may be less important for women than they are for men.

Doctors suggest that as women metabolise alcohol more slowly than men, making alcohol more potent for them, women who do not already drink should not start.

The health page is edited by Mariana Wan. Tel: 2565 2275. Fax: 2562 2485