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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 15th January 2012

There have been a number of stories, recently, about alcohol so I thought, today, I’d take a quick look at some of them.

The debate about how alcohol should be perceived continues. The existing government guidelines are said to be misunderstood because they give a recommended weekly maximum intake but stop short of saying how that intake should be spread across the week. There was a suggestion, in 1995, following reports that alcohol could have a protective effect against coronary heart disease (CHD), that daily limits should be used as the message but this never fully happened so that further confusion arose.

Although only reported on 9th January, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on the alcohol guidelines was printed on 9th December. I don’t know if the committee held its publication back to avoid appearing to be spoilsports at the start of the holiday season or the media didn’t notice it. It notes that the current guidelines are confusing and questions the evidence on CHD (see below) pointing out that the benefit, if any, only applies to men over 40 and post-menopausal women.

The key point in its report, that became the headline for most of the media, is that the guidelines should advise people to have at least two alcohol free days each week. The report feeds into the government’s overall review of alcohol policy which is due to be published soon so we don’t know what the response will be. Clearly, there is a danger that people will assume that, if they have the recommended two days off, then they can drink larger amounts on the drinking days.

The second alcohol story concerns that suggestion that alcohol can be beneficial. On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the University of Connecticut had completed a long-running investigation into the work of one of its professors, Dr. Dipak Das, and found that he had falsified or manipulated data used in his research on the effects of resveratrol, found in red wine, on 145 occasions over seven years.

The university noted that other work on resveratrol, conducted by other places, had found similar benefits to those claimed by Dr. Das but, clearly, there will be a need to review all of that work to see if it was unconsciously led to find the same conclusions as Das. For the time being it places a question mark over the notion that drinking red wine can be beneficial and certainly casts doubt on all those who extended the story from red wine being beneficial to alcohol in general.

As to whether we should feel sad that another prominent scientist has made it easier for people to say ‘scientists don’t know’ and ignore quality research or pleased that the anonymous tip-off, received in 2008, was taken seriously and means that flawed research can be removed from the archives I’ll leave you to decide.

It is unfortunate that this revelation will, probably, make people more sceptical about a paper published in Science Translational Medicine entitled ‘Alcohol Consumption Induces Endogenous Opioid Release in the Human Orbitofrontal Cortex and Nucleus Accumbens’ This small study found that excessive drinking causes the body to produce natural substances with opioid-like effects and suggests this may indicate how alcohol produces addiction.

The sub-headline for one mainstream report of this paper says that the research found that drinking produced the same chemicals as laughing and exercising. I can only guess why it didn’t add heroin to that list. Presumably, drinkers wouldn’t like to be told that their behaviour was similar to ‘druggies’.

And, talking of being ‘similar to ‘druggies’’ brings up a new book ‘Alcohol Nation: How to Protect Our Children from Today's Drinking Culture’ by Dr Aric Sigman. Reviews of the book have focussed on Dr. Sigman’s view that drink can be especially harmful to young people whose brains have not fully developed. That sounds remarkably similar to the view, held by an increasing number of people, that Cannabis sativa, marijuana, is most likely to cause problems, later in life, if use begins before the brain has fully matured.