Is alcohol a poison or toxin? It’s important to know the answer.
A reader sent this email. It was in response to my piece about alcohol is a drug.
Dear Dr. Hanson,
Regarding your article about alcohol as a drug. You miss a vital fact. You neglect to point out that the drug ethanol is a toxin [that] does indeed pass the blood brain barrier. (As do other drugs w/small enough molecules). This lifts alcohol out of the category you’ve invented. That’s whereby practically anything that enters the human body is a drug. Ethanol has a particular way of impairing cognition.
I hope that you look into the facts and include them into any future writing.
Ms. MLD, NY
Dear Ms. MLD:
A basic axiom of pharmacology is simple. “The dosage makes the toxin.” It’s not something I made up.
When consumed in moderate amounts, ethanol is not a toxin. But in large enough quantities it can cause alcohol poisoning. In such cases, the dosage makes alcohol a poison or toxin. Although rare, this is also true of water.
On the other hand, alcohol in moderation leads to better health and longer life. Either abstaining from alcohol or abusing it leads to poorer health and shorter life.
Because, as you state, other drugs also pass through the blood brain barrier, alcohol is not unique in doing so. Nor is alcohol unique in any “particular way of impairing cognition.”
Research has also shown the powerful role of alcohol expectations on behavior. For example, in those societies that do not believe alcohol disinhibits, it doesn’t.
The subject is a complex one. Clearly you recognize some of this complexity. Here are some more links you might find of interest.
Alcohol and Behavior
Alcohol and Cognition
III. Resources on “Is Alcohol a Poison?”
- Dasgupta, A. The Science of Drinking. How Alcohol Affects Your Body and Mind.
- Meister, K. Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Health.
- Tchamba, G. Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Health.
- Klaassen, C. The Basic Science of Poisons.
- McQueen, C. Toxicology.
- Majchrowicz, E. Actions of Ethanol.
- Wallgren, H. and Barry, H. Actions of Alcohol.
- Antilla, T., et al. Alcohol drinking and later risk of mild cognitive impairment. Brit Med J, 329, 538-539.
- Espeland, M., et al. Alcohol intake and cognitive function. Neuroepide, 1(27), 1-12.
- Galanis, D., et al. Drinking and cognition. Am J Pub Health, 90, 1254-1259.
- Ganguli, M., et al. Alcohol and cognitive function. Neurol, 65, 1210-12-17.
- Zuccala, G., et al. Dose-related impact of alcohol. Alco: Clin Exper Res, 25, 1743-1748.
- This site gives no advice. Please see your doctor with questions.