Yesterday I watched a BBC documentary about binge drinking called ‘Horizon: Is Binge Drinking Really That Bad?’. Hosted by the identical twin brothers, doctors and, I figured out later, tv regulars, Chris and Xand van Tulleken, the show was framed as a scientific investigation into the effects of binge drinking. Over the course of a month, the two brothers divided tasks during one month: Whereas Xand binged 21 units once a week, Chris had to consume 3 units each day. So, in the end, they would end up consuming the same amount of alcohol but in quite different ways: Alcohol spread out evenly or alcohol as weekly binges. The question was obviously which form of alcohol consumption that was most damaging to the health.
During the show, they interviewed several specialists and and discussed the effects on the heart, liver and brain. In an interesting section, they also investigated the possible genetic disposition to drunkenness by introducing three sterotypical drinkers, the ‘sleeper’, the ‘machine’ and the the ‘traffic light’, the latter because of a tendency to go from reddish to vomit green during a binge. And, apparently, since the enzymes that break down the alcohol is determined by our genes, binging affects us in quite different ways. For instance, 65% of people living in east Asia (China, Japan, Korea) break down alcohol more slowly than others. When it comes to the process of breaking down alcohol, they have slower genes. Many Asians from this particular region are also known to flush when they drink alcohol. This reaction occurs when a person has trouble metabolizing alcohol because of a genetic variant that impairs production of an enzyme that helps metabolize alcohol in the liver. As a result, acetaldehyde, a toxic byproduct of alcohol, isn’t broken down, but instead builds up in the blood and liver. This dilates blood vessels, leading to flushing (redness and heat) in the face, neck, and sometimes shoulders and entire body.
The twin brothers also investigated the widely held assumption that a moderate consumption of red wine might positively affect heart diseases. Apparently, polyphenal, antioxidants found in wine, has a cardioprotecting effect and thus may extend one’s life span. The problem is, however, that the difference between medicine and poison is the dose (…isn’t that a song title by someone…?) and you would have to drink 21 bottles of wine to get the effect. And it is only relevant for men between the age of 50 and 60.
After having carried out the experiment for a month with some quite entertaining scenes along the way, the two brothers returned to the researchers for the final tests. While still within a normal range, the liver of Xand, the brother who had been binging each weekend, was clear affected. Its stiffness had increased and so was its inflammation. That was probably not so surprising. What was more surprising was that Chris showed exactly the same increase in stiffness and inflammation. So, basically, the researcher could conclude from these tests that it is the amount of alcohol and not the drinking pattern that is crucial. However, they also tested their overall condition and it turned out that Xand’s body showed a much higher degree of systemic inflammation. As the researcher described, the results looked like he had injured himself. In a normal body, the gut keeps bacteria out of the blood stream, but in Xand’s body, they could register a doubling of endotoxins (a bacteria) after the final binge.