As the evidence against drinking piles up, many of us are giving up it up. Healthista spoke to Britain’s biggest drugs researcher Professor David Nutt about why that needn’t mean not getting drunk
We know, it’s boring. You don’t want to hear about how alcohol is bad for your health. You can’t even count the number of times you’ve heard about the links between drinking and liver problems. But it’s all about drinking in moderation, right? Well, maybe not. According to psychiatrist and neuropharmacologist Professor David Nutt, even a small amount could prove fatal. ‘Recent studies have shown that no amount of alcohol is safe to consume and detrimental health effects can be seen with only a small amount.’ While fatalities from every other disease in the UK have slowly decreased over the past 40 years, those from liver failure have steadily continued to rise and they’re still rising.
If there were 3.3 million people dying every year from terrorism there would be a huge outcry
The statistics are hard to ignore – every year 3.3 million people die worldwide from alcohol abuse which represents a whopping 5.9 percent of all deaths globally. According to Prof. Nutt, what is most upsetting is that this will usually happen on a birthday when friends goad the birthday person into excessive drinking. ‘If there were 3.3 million people dying every year from terrorism there would be a huge outcry. There would be police and military with guns all over the streets,’ said Prof. Nutt, during a recent lecture speech at New Scientist Live last weekend.
We spoke to Professor Nutt about the real dangers of alcohol and how we can start to give it up, without giving up on our social lives (or that warm, fuzzy feeling that a glass of vino brings).
What is alcohol REALLY?
‘Amy Winehouse died of a drug overdose.The drug that she overdosed on was called alcohol and it was the only drug present in her body when she died,’ says Professor Nutt. ‘When I heard about her death, I assumed that it would be the result of a concoction of illegal drugs. But although she had been a heroin addict in the past, she found it easier to abstain from heroin than she did from alcohol.’ And, as anyone that’s watched the Winehouse documentary will know, heartbreakingly, the soul singer was sober for six weeks prior to her death. Over time her tolerance for alcohol reduced and when she relapsed it was the high toxicity levels that her body couldn’t handle that killed her.
When we get right down to the basic science of it, Nutt explained that alcohol equals ethanol (that stuff you had to put goggles on to play with in chemistry class at school), ‘ethanol is a small molecule, it gets into your brain fast and – it’s toxic. Isn’t it funny how we drink the same stuff we put on our skin to kill bugs? Believe it or not, the effect in the body is the same as on those bugs you’re trying to kill… worldwide it’s associated with more deaths than malaria, Tuberculosis and meningitis combined.’
The previously held position that some level of alcohol was good for the heart has been revised
And the number of ways it can negatively impact our health is far-reaching. From cancers in the mouth, throat and breast to stroke, heart disease, liver disease, brain damage and damage to the nervous system – that’s not to mention the accidents that can occur while we’re under the influence. So what is classed as an okay amount to drink to avoid the doom and gloom? Well, we were surprised to discover that the NHS says there is no such thing as a safe drinking level. ‘If you drink less than 14 units a week, this is considered low-risk drinking. It’s called ‘low risk’ rather than ‘safe’ because there is no safe drinking level,’ and go on to say ‘The previously held position that some level of alcohol was good for the heart has been revised.’
Professor Nutt takes this argument even further adding, ‘We can now confidently say that when it comes to dementia, the only environmental risk factor that we can do anything about is alcohol. Alcohol contributes towards 20 percent of the burden of dementia in this country,’ – it’s certainly not the story that those cute prosecco and wine videos on Facebook are touting and when we’re submerged in a culture of alcohol-worship these kinds of claims can feel a little far stretched. After all, French women are famously known as some of the healthiest in the world and we all know that they love to indulge in a glass of wine. But even they’re not safe from the anti-alcohol brigade. in 2005 a report revealed to the French government showed that one in ten people in the country has an alcohol problem.
So why do we keep drinking it?
Rewind a few years back from that 2005 French report and David Nutt was working under the Blair government (he was eventually sacked for claiming LSD and ecstasy were less dangerous than alcohol). ‘In 1999 I was asked to join a cabinet office working group to review drug laws. Amazingly, we’d been asked to study ALL drugs and I was seriously impressed with that. We looked at drugs from heroin and crack to tobacco and alcohol. The cabinet was composed of lots of experts and we undertook our research and eventually published a final report. When the final report was published, a strange thing happened – the alcohol chapter had disappeared. When we asked the secretariat where it had gone we were told that the government had consulted with the drinks industry and that they’d been told that there were some errors. So for that reason, they decided to exclude alcohol from the report entirely – basically, in my opinion the drinks industry had bought off the government and taken out any criticism of alcohol.’
The big problem, says Nutt, is that we don’t see alcohol as a drug. ‘For the last 100 years the drinks industry has pursued an extremely effective campaign to eliminate all competition by creating a model where alcohol is not a drug, it’s a lifestyle choice… every other recreational drug is illegal under UK law.’
And let’s face it. When it comes down to it, we enjoy drinking. Just like we might occasionally overindulge in a sugar-packed carrot cake we also love to indulge in some after-work drinks. Just try doing dry January to see how unsociable and isolating it can sometimes feel going without. As an ex-Healthista intern once said of going alcohol-free, ‘you’d have to prise the Moscow Mule from my cold, dead hands’ – it’s safe to say we really like alcohol.
We don’t have to give it up for good, do we?
Is it time to look for an alternative?
Despite Professor Nutt’s claims, there are scientists that say the reverse and some studies say that links have even been found between moderate drinking and a reduced chance of gallstones or Type 2 diabetes. And while most of the evidence screams that there are more disadvantages than benefits, even Nutt says we don’t have to freak out and start smashing up our drinks cabinet when we go home tonight (phew!), ‘alcohol is a very important part of social culture and people should continue to relax with it and interact responsibly. There will always be occasions to raise a glass of champagne or indulge in a fine wine. However, the development of an alternative adult beverage would provide a wider choice for those interested in a more healthy lifestyle.’
You know that warm, fuzzy, tipsy feeling you get after drinking two glasses of wine? That’s where Alcarelle is aiming to get you
Headlines this week announced that a new pill that stops you from binge drinking by killing the ‘buzz’ of alcohol could hit the market by 2020 (experts at addiction centre Indivior are currently working on refining the product for release) and they aren’t the only ones working on a way to combat drinking culture. ‘Half of UK consumers said they’ve become more health conscious in the last 12 months. More than 30 percent of young people in London are said to self-declare as ‘low/no’ alcohol and alcohol consumption per person has been in decline for some years now… it’s clear that the drinks industry needs a ‘free-from’ alternative and the consumer market is ready,’ says Professor Nutt. And the professor himself thinks he has the answer.
What’s this new wonder drug then?
A team of brainboxes have put their minds together to create a product that might solve all of our alcohol-related woes. Wouldn’t it be great if we could feel the effects of that second glass of red all while avoiding that ever-looming hangover? Alcarelle, a drug-drink that has been created by the team of science boffins working with Nutt has apparently got the power to do just that, ‘we looked at all of the literature on how alcohol affects the brain. We looked at the desired and undesired effects of alcohol and then tried to find substances that target the same parts of the brain that are engaged with alcohol.’ Basically, by using the sorcery of science, the company has managed to pick out all of those parts of being drunk that we love (unwinding, feeling more confident, happy and sociable) and taking out the parts we hate (aggressiveness, disorientation, a hangover – and the looming threat of death). This new alcohol will supposedly be a healthier, low-cal option and the team are primarily looking at creating a liquid that can be mixed into cocktails with plans to branch out as they develop. The drink will be available to buy in bars and the focus is on creating a social drug that discourages the consumer to sit and drink alone at home. Nutt has been working on this project for a decade and is excited to be in the final stages of development.
You know that warm, fuzzy, tipsy feeling you get after drinking two glasses of wine? That’s where Alcarelle is aiming to get you. ‘It’s not about getting out of control. Most people don’t get drunk to get out of control, they get drunk to unwind.’ He explained that it’s after that third glass of wine we start to lose our sense of judgement and decide to keep drinking – we all know how easy it is to roll downhill from there. The plan with Alcarelle is that there will be a cap so that it will be physically impossible to get out of control when drinking. Then after 45 minutes, the feeling wears off and you can go about your day, fresh and sober. The company has done a number of clinical trials and have narrowed their search down to three candidates. ‘We’re hoping by 2020 or 2021 we’ll be in a position to at least start first field trials.’ They’ve got the science down, let’s hope they can create the perfect taste.
We can’t wait to see how this one develops. But in the meantime, pass us a G&T, will you?
David Nutt is speaking at this year’s New Scientist Live event, which takes place 28th September – 1st October 2017. For more information on the festival of ideas and discovery visit: http://www.newscientistlive.com/