Alcohol’s dark secrets

Scientific research shows that the danger of alcohol is too pervasive to be ignored.

What the ads say and the movies portray about alcohol is very different from the effects alcohol produces on our bodies and in our communities. Young men and women whose minds and desires are being targeted by the carefully orchestrated media campaigns are not being told the dark secrets of alcohol. They are not being told, for example, that alcohol has the potential to feminize men. Contrary to what alcohol advertisements would have us believe, the more alcohol a man drinks, the less of the male hormone, testosterone, his body produces. In fact, alcohol stimulates the liver to produce an enzyme that converts the testosterone to the female hormone oestrogen.1 This is why men who drink heavily can develop breasts, lose hair, and develop feminine patterns of fat deposits.

Has anyone told you about this effect of alcohol before? Have you seen statements on any of the macho beer advertisements or on beer bottles and cans warning that excess consumption of this product may cause feminization in men? Is not this effect the very opposite of the message of many of the beer ads which imply that “real men” drink beer? This feminization effect of alcohol has been known for many years. A search under “alcohol and feminization” on the U.S. National Library of Medicine medical research database http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query reveals a number of studies about this aspect of alcohol. So why have we not been told?

Alcohol’s effects on masculinity

But there is even more to this dark side of alcohol. Some of the studies that will come up in the above search reveal that when female rats were exposed to alcohol in their diet during pregnancy, they produced feminized male offspring. In one experiment, adult male offspring of mothers who had consumed either an alcohol-free diet or one containing 5 percent alcohol were released near a caged receptive female and a caged male. Rats from the alcohol-free control group mothers devoted 29 percent of their time to the receptive female compared to 13 percent of their time near the male, whereas rats from the alcohol exposed mothers devoted 20 percent of their time equally to both the male and the receptive female.2 In another study, 44 percent of the male rats prenatally exposed to alcohol failed to ejaculate when mating with a receptive female even though they had normal genitalia.3 Recent animal studies have further confirmed that prenatal alcohol exposure can produce the abnormal sexual behavior, which is possibly explained by a testosterone mechanism.4 These findings in animal behavior suggest that there might be quite sensitive social issues associated with alcohol consumption that many people with vested interests would not wish discussed.

The dark side of alcohol does not stop here. We are only just beginning to expose its sinister secrets. Alcohol consumption during human pregnancy can lead to the fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in the child. These can include malformation of organs including the heart, central nervous system, genitals, and the brain.5 In fact, for nearly 20 years it has been recognized that FAS is the leading cause of intellectual impairment in Western culture.6

Alcohol and pregnancy

Young drinking males are not immune from fathering deformed offspring, either. As far back as the early 1930s—in a handbook for mothers and mothers-to-be entitled All About the Baby—Dr. Belle Wood Comstock observed that children of alcoholic fathers often showed various signs of both mental and physical degeneracy. She suggested this could be explained on the basis of the almost unbelievable supposition that alcohol in the blood can serve to poison the sperm of prospective fathers.7 In February 1991—60 years later—Dr. Gladys Friedler of the Boston University School of Medicine reported to the American Association for the Advancement of Science that fathers’ exposure to alcohol had been found to affect the growth and development of their children.8

Animal and human studies have also shown that alcohol damages male sperm, decreases sperm count, and can cause testicular atrophy.9 Studies using rats found that when the animals were allowed to drink alcohol freely, their testis were smaller and the sperm ducts degenerated. Their sperm was found to have significantly reduced motility and was not able to fertilize a receptive female despite successful matings.10

It has been known for years that alcohol consumption causes impotence in men and delayed satisfaction in women.11 However, the alcohol industry has cleverly diverted attention from this fact by capitalizing on our natural interest in sex and the role that alcohol can play in seduction by reducing inhibitions. By using ads for alcoholic beverages that imply an association with sexual success, our attention has been diverted from the effects on impotence. This further illustrates how our thoughts and behaviors can be manipulated by clever strategic marketing.

Alcohol and advertisements

The alcohol industry spends millions of dollars each year researching and producing messages and images that will best persuade us to buy its products. The bottom line is to increase sales and thereby increase profits. Some of the cleverest and highest paid minds in the world are employed to convince young people to start drinking. The industry knows that once they start, many of them will be customers for life.

These marketing campaigns have been highly successful. For example, in Australia between 1993 and 2001, alcohol consumption in the general community increased by 10 percent over and above the already high levels.12 Young women were particularly targeted by the beverage industry in the early 1990s through the promotion of discounted drinks and the development of fruit juice and cordial mixes that appeal to the female palate. As a result, female drinking rates have soared. The 1996 Women’s Health Australia Study found that of 14,762 women aged 18-23, 70 percent reported engaging in binge drinking, with 25 percent doing so weekly. Only 9 per cent of the young women surveyed said they were non-drinkers.13 The alcohol industry has successfully persuaded thousands of women to become drinkers.

Alcohol and health

One of the not-so-hidden snares of the alcohol-sex connection is that alcohol facilitates casual sex before marriage,14 and this practice exposes young people to high risk of contacting the insidious disease chlamydia trachomatis (CT), a sexually transmitted disease that despite the lack of physical symptoms can have serious long-term consequences if left untreated. Young females are particularly vulnerable to an ascending infection, which can result in pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which in turn may lead to tubal infertility. In the case of men, the disease can cause sterility.

Promoting the heart health benefits of alcohol is another alcohol industry marketing strategy. How often do you see articles in newspapers and magazines extolling the latest findings of how beer and wines, particularly red wines, protect against heart disease? In the context of very moderate drinking, these claims may have some truth. But by the same token, how often do you see articles reminding that even moderate drinking can cause a significant increased risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer in women? A search on the U.S. National Library of Medicine medical research database under “alcohol and cancer” reveals hundreds of studies linking alcohol consumption with an increased risk for a number of serious cancer types—yet how often are we warned that alcohol either causes or promotes cancer? Furthermore, alcohol, even in modest amounts, appears to increase the risk of stroke.15 So this beverage is far from being benign in terms of health effects.

Alcohol and social effects

Nor is it benign in terms of social effects. We are well informed as to the link between alcohol and road accidents. But the social side to alcohol is much, much darker. Alcohol consumption is a contributing factor to many violent crimes. One of the most devastating aspects of alcohol use relates to its role in terrible crimes against women—rape and domestic violence. In the United States, conservative estimates of sexual assault suggest that 25 percent of American women have experienced sexual assault including rape. Approximately one-half of those cases involved alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the victim, or both.16

Alcohol is estimated to be involved in about 50 percent of all incidents of domestic violence. In a survey of more than 2,000 American couples, rates of domestic violence were almost 15 times higher in households where the husbands were often drunk as opposed to being never drunk.17 Recent U.S. Department of Justice statistics give a similar picture of alcohol’s involvement in intimate partner violence. Two-thirds of victims abused by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend, reported that alcohol had been a factor, and about half of alcohol-related violence incidents reported to police involved current or former spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends of the offenders.18

Alcohol does not cause domestic violence, but it is involved as a major factor, acting as a powerful disinhibitor by unlocking deeper feelings and frustrations. Strong evidence for the disinhibiting role alcohol plays in domestic violence comes from a 2003 study by the Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo. The study of 270 men with a predisposition for physical violence toward their female partners found that on days when the men drank, they were eight times more likely to be violent toward their partners compared to the days when they had no alcohol. Moreover, on days of heavy drinking—six or more drinks within a 24-hour period—the chances of any male-to-female partner violence was 18 times higher compared to days of no drinking.19

For a large proportion of the population, alcohol is a curse and it is no surprise that the Bible records God’s hatred for drunkenness (Galatians 5:19-21). No one who loves God as Creator and Redeemer will ever take that first sip and get on the road to become a slave to alcohol.

John F. Ashton (Ph.D., FRACI) is Honorary Associate in the School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences at the University of Sydney, Australia. His most recent book Uncorked: The Hidden Hazards of Alcohol (Warburton, Australia: Signs Publishing Co., 2004) is co-authored by Dr. Ronald S. Laura (D.Phil.), Fellow of the Philosophy of Educational Research Centre, Harvard University.

REFERENCES

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