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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Alcohol - the good, the bad and the ugly

"Moderation in most things" is a very old principle that goes sadly underused today. Individual foood and beverage ingredients and entire food groups are demonized either based on experiments, where lab animals are given excessive doses of these substances for long periods of time, or based on over-indulgence by human beings. One of such substances - alcohol - had acquired a mixed reputation, its role ranging from constant and respected presence in many European households to being a prominent accomplice in the investigations of alcohol poisonings and crimes committed under the influence.

Alcohol has been a part of human diet for most of its civilized history. Beer, for instance, appeares in the records of the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians with the unwritten history possibly dating even further back. Consumed in moderation, beer was known to be good for the heart and longevity. Benefits of moderate beer consumption discovered by our ancestors, were later confirmed in the lab: rich supply of nutrients, cardiac health, lower risk of stroke and age-associated mental decline.

The perceived ill effects of beer (such as the mental slowness, the crassness of manner and, of course the much-despised "beer belly") are not generated by beer itself, but by the way it is consumed and the foods it is often combined with. The once-noble and healthful beverage, whose recipe was considered so important by the Sumerians that they included it in a prayer to one of their goddesses to ensure that it wouldn't be lost, is now gulped down by gallons at fraternity gatherings and Super Bowl parties accompanied by all things fried, served in huge portions and high in saturated fat. Not only do these combinations negate any positive health effects of beer, but they also bring forth the health risks posed by intense prolonged consumption of alcohol: cirrhosis (liver disease), pancreatitis and gout.

Beer's equally ancient and esteemed cousin - wine - mirrors its inconsistent reputation in some ways. The difference is that wine has not been adopted as a "working man's drink" to the extent beer has and, thus, figures less prominently in the instances of binge and party drinking.

Moderate consumption of red wine has been proven to be good for the heart and for some anti-cancer hedging. Interestingly enough, these benefits (especially the heart health advantages) rest in the middle of the wine-consumption curve, that is - the benefits are higher for the moderate red wine drinkers, while non-drinkers and excessive drinkers derive no advantage.

The hard liquors have a much briefer history than the great patriarchs - beer and wine - a mere five - ten centuries, a trifle really. Their basis is ethanol obtained by distilling fermented fruit, vegetables or grain (beer and wine are not distilled). There is less historic evidence and fewer studies indicating any positive effects of hard liquors on human health. Although, there is some proof that moderate consumption of whiskey, for instance, carries the same health benefits as moderate consumption of wine. It has yet to be determined, whether the positive effects are due to the alcohol itself or due to the combination of alcohol with other ingredients.

As for other hard liquors - gin, rum, brandy, vodka and the like - much of the positive evidence lies in popular literature and movies, where these beverages are used to revive the victims of hypothermia (taken internally or used as rub-downs). Having grown up in the Soviet Ukraine, I myself can recall my parents rubbing me down with vodka (I was a sickly child and caught colds on average every one or two months) and giving me a glass of boiling-hot raspberry wine as a fever-reducing agent. The problem is, unless the alcohol in question is hot, both the rub-downs and the intake are actually bad for you.

The reason a glass of brandy (or any other hard liquor) makes one feel warm is that it lowers the body temperature, so the ambient air feels warmer. By that token, one just on the brink of hypothermia can get hypothermia by drinking cold hard liquor. Only if the beverage is hot can there be any real (and not perceived) benefit, because in that case the blood vessel-dilating ability of alcohol combined with the drink's high temperature actually boosts the circulation and elevates the person's body temperature to combat the effects of a cold or hypothermia. A hot alcoholic beverage that includes fruit juice or the actual fruit is even better, because it includes the anti-oxidants and the fever-reducing agents contained in the fruit. My father makes a range of excellent alcohol-based fruit beverages with black and red currant and raspberry. Consumed cold and in small quantities, they boost appetite before dinner. Consumed hot, they make a great cold and fever remedy.

Small amounts of hard liquors used in recipes are also beneficial, as they enhance the taste and smell and, thus, improve digestion of a given dish - be it a main course or a dessert.

Negative impacts of hard liquors consumed excessively are well-documented and many, including alcohol poisoning, cirrhosis of the liver, dehydration, irritation of the digestive system and, in some cases, jaundice, blindness and death. Harmful impacts of alcohol consumed during a woman's pregnancy are supported by extensive evidence collected over thousands of years (the earliest records of the link between alcohol consumption by the mother and issues in fetal development and childbirth date back to Ancient Greece).

In addition to direct impact to the drinker, excessive consumption of alcohol carries a lot of "collateral damage" - ruined families, destroyed relationships, traumatized children and so forth. No matter how much some people say there are immune to the effects of alcohol, the level of such "immunity" is highly questionable. The chain reaction originating from a single explosive alcohol-related incident can and will be swift and destructive.

Uncontrolled drinking of my eldest cousin resulted in abusive incidents, during which he raised a hand at our elderly grandparents (and refused to assume any responsibility afterward because he remembered nothing), increase in our grandparents' health issues due to physical and psychological stress and a near destruction of his marriage. What started as somewhat excessive social drinking for one of my uncles, escalated into full-fledged alcoholism after sudden death of his wife. He ended up drinking himself to death. My uncle's body was found by one of his sons two days after the death occurred, which, in its turn, lead to a drinking binge for the young man and the associated trauma to his wife and young daughter.

I myself was attacked with the purpose of sexual assault twice - at the age of ten and at the age of fourteen. In both cases, I was fortunate enough to get away. In both cases, my attacker was a stranger and heavily drunk. I was, as I said, lucky, but, sadly I would be considered an exception rather than a rule heavily outweighted by other children, men and women who were not so fortunate. These examples are not in any way new or startling, when it comes to families with chronic alcohol abusers. They are but tiny grains in a mountain of grief and violated lives.

There are many sources and vast amounts of information available describing history, manufacturing processes, ingredients, benefits and negative impacts of various sources of alcohol. The knowledge is there for the taking, so pleading ignorance is really not an option any longer.

I myself am a wine-lover with an occasional small shot of port or a Smirnoff Ice here and there. At the age of thirty-three I have only had two hangovers in my life - at the age of sixteen and at the age of twenty-two. The effects were enough for me not to want to have another one ever again. I love a glass of white with my fish and a glass of red with my steak. A good bottle is always welcome in my house with a nice cheese spread and a fun conversation among friends. That, however, is a limit that I do not wish to cross. Ask yourself, where your alcohol boundary is, measure how reasonable it is based not just on your own perception, but also based on the impact it has on those around you, consider whether the amount you consume places you into the category of people deriving health benefits or into the category where any advantage is heavily outweighted by the bad and the ugly. Then and only then you can decide, to which degree you may allow alcohol into your life.

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