The bottom line of ‘bottoms up!’

Maria Isabel Garcia
The bottom line of ‘bottoms up!’
[Science Solitaire] How did we come upon rotting food and turn it to a love affair in bars and other stages of celebrations? And has this love affair rendered us invincible to its damaging health effects?

Having an alcohol drink has been romanticized in our lives, in literature and in ads and with good reason. They taste good to many and the process of making alcohol drinks makes for really good stories – vineyards and aging barrels in dungeons and all. Having that drink has also been associated with taking a chance, being more adventurous, doing something for yourself or reward for good work. This is so because the effects could be mind-altering – at least while inebriated. It is quite interesting to feel yourself or watch others in this state when they are not exactly themselves. But how did we come upon rotting food and turn it to a love affair in bars and other stages of celebrations? And has this love affair rendered us invincible to its damaging health effects?

Humans do not instantly die when taking alcohol because they have a gene mutation called ADH4 – proteins that break down alcohol for us. Chimpanzees and gorillas have this protein too. About 10 million years ago, we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees and gorillas who had a gene mutation that could synthesize alcohol much better than the other primates.

This means that that ancestor for vast stretches of time came upon rotting fruit and it became part of its diet, as it was able to process alcohol within and thereby augmenting its food supply. That evolutionary win was passed on to other primates, including humans.  Scientists knew this by sequencing the ADH4 of 19 primates and then working backwards to determine its versions back in time. They made copies of these different versions to see which version worked best in metabolizing alcohol. It turned out that the 10-million-year old version of the ADH4 is the one that worked 40 times more in breaking down alcohol. That is the version we still have up to now.  Scientists even suspect that we have a more active version which we developed around 9,000 years ago when we learned how to ferment food for ourselves to extend the lives of food.

But guess what? While it expanded our range of food paradise, ADH4 does not shield us from cancer that alcohol could cause.

Fast forward now to humans after 10 million years and we now have a comprehensive study that has concluded that alcohol directly causes cancer. After reviewing existing studies on the effects of alcohol on health and even weighing it against the purported heart health benefits of wine, the study has pinpointed the cancers caused by alcohol in seven sites: oropharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and female breast.

How could something universally consumed by probably all cultures and celebrated so publicly in media be bad for us? Just like what is natural is not necessarily safe, what is popular and endorsed by the celebrity gods and goddesses, is not necessarily healthy.

Bu then you still could not believe it and feel like clarifying and asking if alcohol refers to wine, liquor, beer, cocktails? While alcoholic ads may match your life episode with a bar-wide spectrum of alcoholic drinks with different “cool” factors, the study found that there did not appear to be any variation of cancer risk by beverage type. This means our bodies just recognize any of these drinks as the same old alcohol.  

The scientists acknowledge that for the longest time, even medical advice would use the terms “alcohol-related cancer or “alcohol-attributable cancer” giving the impression that it is a gray area. But the study yielded such strong associations between drinking alcohol and cancers that it was particularly strong for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus colorectal cancer, liver and breast, stated in the order of decreasing risk. And if you smoke, the risk gets multiplied many times more for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus.

It seems that when alcohol metabolizes, it causes DNA damage that gives way to cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus. Smoking aggravates this damage and this is can cause head and neck cancers. For breast cancer, it appears that alcohol works with oestrogen for this.

You must wonder: but I am not a heavy drinker! They also cited a study in the UK where they found that women who drank 5/8 cup to 1 2/8 cups of alcohol a week had a 5% increase in total cancer risk and a 13% increase in breast cancer risk compared to those who drank less. In another study they cited, even light drinkers increased their risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, esopahagus and breast.

And as always, you may find it tempting to cite this friend or relative of yours who drank till the cows came home but never got cancer. The study of course cited that there are genetic factors involved in cancer risks as well. Some people probably have gene mutations that make them less susceptible. But the study is epidemiological, which means it detects cancer risk patterns in populations (not for Uncle Kiko, Auntie Sally or Mang Ben) which is what we need as basis for public health warnings.

The good news is that the study also found that if you quit drinking sooner, then you decrease your cancer risks and even reverse your losses in some cases.

Drinking is rewarding because it is food. Food has always been a primal motivator for us humans and being rewarding, it could also be addicting. That is why we also find ourselves up in arms whenever something raises the serious health risks involved in drinking alcohol. It goes straight to threatening how good alcohol has made us feel, livening up our lifestyles. But our feelings are our feelings and evidence is evidence. That is the bottom line when you “bottom’s up.” –

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