Recently I came across a frightening medical fact:

The metabolites released after a night of drinking alcohol do so much free radical damage to internal tissues, that they create a scenario in the body that resembles the effects of intense radiation poisoning. Pretty mind boggling huh?!

Now you may understand why you feel so sick after a night of heavy drinking. Even the consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol releases acetaldehyde and malondialdehyde (alcohol metabolites) into the blood stream, allowing them to wreak their havoc on the body. Initially the damage occurs in the stomach (first point of contact) – here alcohol irritates epithelial and parietal cells as well as promoting an excessive production of hydrochloric acid (once levels cross a specific threshold, the brain is notified that there is something inside the stomach that isn't meant to be there and in turn signals the nervous system to start the gag reflex in order to remove the unwanted substance.)

There are two main ways that alcohol harms the liver. One is the excessive oxidative stress occurring while our livers are trying to break down the alcohol. The resulting chemical reaction damages surrounding tissue cells. This damage  leads to inflammation and eventual scarring of the liver itself. The other is the toxic metabolites brought about by alcohol reacting with the usually harmless bacteria in our gut. When alcohol enters the system, it can damage our intestinal wall which lets these bacterial toxins migrate into the liver. These toxins can also lead to inflammation and scarring.

Both of alcohol’s metabolites are more toxic than alcohol itself. Acetaldehyde inhibits the production of a natural stimulant called glutamine, important for day-to-day activities. However, once you stop drinking, the body tries to make up for the missing glutamine and starts over producing it (which is why many people who drink alcohol find it hard to fall asleep – their brains are being overstimulated by the excess glutamine in the system.)

Detox, old-school style

In times gone by, blood-letting was de rigueur for people interested removing toxins from their systems. The rationale behind this was that ‘physicians’ of the time believed that all disease was caused by an overabundance of mysteriously elusive “disease-causing” substances in the blood – remember, they didn’t know about microorganisms back then, – so their thoughts were on the right track even though the mode of promoting their excretion was slightly amiss. Slightly. Incidentally, blood-letting was recommended for most ailments back then. From back pain to gout.

Isn’t it comforting to know the humble (and oft erroneous) beginnings of our now so trusted medical establishment?

Is there a better approach?

Eating the right food groups will help aid the liver and immune system in doing the job they do, naturally. These are fruits, vegetables, lean meat (fish and poultry,) seeds, nuts, brown rice and healthy oils (sunflower, olive.) Also eggs are good as they contain cysteine, a natural amino acid that binds and inactivates acetaldehyde.

Foods to avoid are any processed foods, dairy, saturated fats, white bread and any form of lollies or sweets.

Over and above food, supplementing with antioxidants before a night out drinking may help prevent most of the damage caused by the imbibed alcohol, but these should be taken with caution. Alcohol ‘over-taxes’ the liver so any antioxidants (also processed by the liver) should be taken before alcohol is consumed in order to avoid excess work for the liver. If you forget to take them prior to drinking, then taking them right before bed time will help reduce the hangover effect in the morning. Anecdotally, eating lettuce may also help minimise liver damage as it too stimulates the liver (as most bitter foods do.)

Mediterranean folklore stipulates that a spoonful of olive oil before a night out will prevent hangovers. These regions drink alcohol at lunchtime, so their experiences will have some form of merit; even if they’re stooped in superstition. The olive oil remedy is actually not so far-fetched; filling the stomach with most foods will aid the body in assimilating the alcohol and will reduce the severity of hangovers.

But as for ‘de-toxing’ your system, there is no supplement you can take that will eliminate waste products from the body. That doesn’t happen. Most products on the market advertised as ‘detox’ promote the body’s own intrinsic systems for clearing disease-causing pollutants. Most of these supplements stimulate proper bowel function and promote a healthy immune system (our body’s very own natural ‘de-toxifier’) – so it’s more about propping up existing pathways than tangibly removing toxins directly. Our bodies are fully capable of eliminating waste and toxins naturally.

Age is also a factor in promoting the severity of alcohol-related damage on the liver, brain and central nervous system. So ideally, the amount of alcohol imbibed should gradually reduce with age.

So, what supplements may actually help?

The nutrients and minerals that may help prevent damage from alcohol’s beastly metabolites are vitamin C, vitamin B1 & B12, vitamin E, folic acid, milk thistle, S-allyl-cysteine, N-acetyl-cysteine, glutathione (all amino acids,) magnesium, selenium, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe,) garlic and probiotics.

Several promising clinical studies have investigated chronic pre-treatment with antioxidants prior to alcohol ingestion and the conclusions were promising. Vitamin E was shown to prevent vascular damage to the brain from excessive alcohol consumption and N-acetyl-cysteine was actually shown to bind acetaldehyde (alcohol metabolite,) making it a natural antidote.

It makes sense to prepare your body for a night of drinking; if we get poisoned we take an antidote, so the same philosophy should apply here.

But let’s not forget that the Fukushima nuclear melt-down happened in Japan, we don’t need to mimic the damage caused there, in our own bodies. Moderation is key!

Ovid, the epic Roman poet, had this to say over 2000 years ago:

“There is more refreshment and stimulation in a nap, even of the briefest, than in all the alcohol ever distilled.”

Yep, when in doubt, take a nap.

For more information please check out our detox & liver catalogue.

by Christopher von Roy BSc, MSc, DCP Immunology


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