Alcohol and the Human Body

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The recent admirable presentation of this theme by Sir Victor Horsley, forms the basis
for the following remarks. New and surprising discoveries have been made within recent years
as to alcohol and its effects upon the human body. There is today an abundance of indisputable
experimental and statistical evidence proving that alcohol, instead of aiding the human
economy, as at first supposed, does actual harm to the structure and functions of the different
organs of the body. The decrease in the use of alcohol by medical practitioners is indicated by
the following fact: - The statistics of seven large London Hospitals in 1852 show that nearly
£8,000 were spent on alcohol and only £3,000 on milk; but on 1902 less than £3,000 were spent
on alcohol and more than £8,000 on milk.
In pharmacology alcohol is classed as poison. It belongs to the same class as carbolic
acid and creosote Carbolic acid only differs from ethylic alcohol or wine spirit by containing
four more atoms of carbon. Alcohol is obtained by the distillation of fermented liquids and may
be said to be the waste product of the yeast plant. This micro-organism, which exists in the air,
produces a ferment which acts upon certain sugars splitting them up into water, alcohol and
carbonic acid gas. Strange to say, the growth and multiplication of the yeast plant ceases when
the alcohol in the solution reaches 18 percent. The effect to alcohol on the human body is due
largely to properties it possesses as a physical and chemical agent. In relation to organized
bodies it may be said to be irritant, stimulant, narcotic and anesthetic. Even a dilute solution
will produce intense inflammation when dropped on a raw surface. An eminent English
scientist says: - “Alcohol, as a stimulant, is something which takes strength out of a man instead
of putting it in him.” The first seeming exhilaration is followed by a depressant effect. Its
properties as a desiccant may be shown by the following experiment: - “Place in a goblet the
whites of two or three eggs from which the yolks have been carefully removed. Now add two
or three tablespoonful’s of strong alcohol. In a minute or two the colorless, transparent albumen
will become a white, opaque and hard.” It is due in part, to this drying property that alcohol
does its harmful work, and this is the reason that alcoholic drinks instead of allaying thirst,
usually create a thirst for more.
Alcoholic beverages may de divided into three classes: - (1) Beers – ale, beer, stout and
porter – containing from 4 to 7 percent of alcohol; (2) Wines, including some fifty varieties: containing from 9 to 22 percent; (3) Spirits – gin, brandy, whisky and rum – containing from
40 to 56 percent of strong alcohol. All animals do their work without the aid of these artificial
drinks which are opposed to the first desires of man and which contain necessary to the up
building of the body. The natural drinks are quite sufficient. In milk, 12 parts in 100 are solid,
providing saline substances for the skeleton, butter and sugar for the heat and power, and casein
for the muscle and new structures.


In considering the action of alcohol on the body we must learn to think in terms of
protoplasm, of which the cells constituting the ultimate basis of human life are actually made.
The living protoplasm implies the power of life, vitality and change. It is the name given to the
elemental material out of which all living animal and vegetable matter is formed and which is
composed of albuminous substances, salts and water. The aggregate cell action is important.
As the working people of a nation are gathered together into factories, so the cells of the body
are packed into organs, and these do their work well or badly according to the condition of the
individual cells, whether these are healthy or more or less exhausted, degenerated or poisoned.
The health of the cells depends wholly upon the condition of the protoplasm and nuclei of
which the cell consists. Now alcohol has been proved to be a definite protoplasmic poison. By
seizing upon the oxygen of the blood it interferes with the breathing function of the living
protoplasm. It causes the cells to shrink and to become mottled, preventing them from taking
in the required oxygen. The necessary oxidization of the fats and starches taken into the body
is therefore lessened, causing very serious fatty degeneration and other maladies. Even very
dilute solutions of alcohol exert an inhibitory and, indeed, fatal influence on the processes of
life. It was found that one part of alcohol in a hundred of water actually killed the cress seeds;
one part in one thousand was fatal to the Medusa, the fresh water jelly-fish. Rauber found that
a 10 percent solution of alcohol acted as a definite protoplasmic poison to all forms of cell-life
with which he experimented, including the hydra tapeworms, earthworms, leeches, cray=fish
and mammals, as well as the human subject.
The stomach, being a hollow muscle, is more easily examined. Alexis St. Martin’s
stomach was perforated by a gun-shot. It healed so that a permanent opening was made. He
lived to a good old age and enjoyed excellent health. This man was employed for years by Dr.
Beaumont, who watched the effect of alcoholic drinks upon the stomach. It was found that even
small doses would cause the blood-vessels to appear, denoting inflammation and congestion.
When alcoholic drinks were given daily in large quantities, in addition to the dilatation of the
blood-vessels, large bluish patches appeared indication stagnation of the blood, likely to cause
death of the tissues and ulceration. Even small quantities of alcohol have been proved to be
hurtful to the processes of digestion. Dr. Munroe of Hull, placed in three bottles nely minced
beef together with the gastric juice from the stomach of a calf. In one he poured water, in
another alcohol, and in another pale ale. The temperature was kept at 100 degrees and the
contents churned in imitation of the natural movements of the stomach. After four hours it was
found that beef in the first bottle was digesting and separating, that in the second was still
unchanged, while that in the third seemed to be covered with a fur. After ten hours the beef in
the first was dissolved like soup that in the second was still solid, while that in third was not
digested and pepsin was precipitated.
Under the microscope nothing is more beautiful than healthy muscular fiber; but under
the influence of alcohol the sharp lines become obliterated, globules of fat appear and the
muscle becomes soft and flabby. Dr. Parkes experimented as follows: - A number of soldiers

of the same age, type of constitution and living under the same circumstances were divided
into an alcoholic and non-alcoholic gang. They were paid according to the amount of work
accomplished. At the end of a few days the beer-drinking men begged to be transferred to the
non-alcoholic gang. In the Boer War it is stated that the wonderful power and endurance of the
Boers were largely due to their total abstinence from spirituous drinks. In reference to
Ladysmith Sir Frederick Treves said: - “In that enormous column of 80,00 the first men who
dropped out were not the tall men or short men, the big men or little men – they were the
drinkers, and they dropped out as clearly as if they had been labelled with big letters on their
backs.” Alcohol being a narcotic poison not only lessens the quantity of work but injures the
quality. Total abstainers are the best athletes, the best marksmen and the most enduring
workmen in the world.
It has always been deemed that alcohol quickens thought but there is today abundant
proof that it influences adversely the fine brain cells and centers of highest intellectual
development. By testing type-setters with and without alcohol it was found that in the former
condition the loss of working power was 8-7 percent. Mental processes of a somewhat
complicated character have been tested as follows: - The subject would place each hand on a
telegraph key at right and left. One key or the other was to be pressed promptly according as a
red or white light appeared. It was necessary, therefore to recognize the color of the light and
to recall which hand was to be moved at that particular signal; that is to make a choice not
unlike that which an engineer is required to make when he encounters an unexpected signal
light. The tests showed that after taking a small quantity of alcohol – say a glass of beer – there
was a marked disturbance in the mental processes. On the average this keys were released more
rapidly but the wrong key was much more frequently released than under normal
circumstances. Speed was attained at the cost of correct judgment. As Dr. Steer remarks, ‘the
experiment reveals the elements of two of the most persistent effects of alcohol, namely, the
vitiating of mental processes and the increased tendency to hasty or in coordinate movements.
A levelling down process is involved whereby the higher function is dulled and the lower
function accentuated.’
Sir Victor Horsley, in addition to the diseases due to alcohol alone, enumerates some
thirty diseases of which alcohol is frequently a determining or contributing cause. Among these
are mentioned chronic dyspepsia, consumption, catarrh, out, paralysis, epilepsy, imbecility,
insanity, hysteria, and melancholia. Infectious diseases, such as cholera, diphtheria, etc., are
less liable to be cured if the patient has been accustomed to the free use of alcoholic beverages.
Dr. Arthur Newsholme has forcibly shown that alcohol is the greatest enemy to national health
and well beings. It is the cause of 50 percent of the insanity and pauperism and 75 percent of
the crime, and is a great shortener of life. All who have seriously considered this subject agree
that it is dreadful thing to give alcoholic beverages to children, as they tend to blunt the intellect,
deaden the conscience, diminish the will-power, lessen vigor and excite the animal instincts.
The late Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, F. R. S, M. D., said: - “The use of alcohol as a beverage
produces an infinity of evil for which there is no compensation and no human cure.” In view


of the facts, is there not a little wisdom in Shakespeare’s injunction to “beware of putting an
enemy in your mouth to steal away your brain.” – M. M.


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