Status: 09.06.2024 22:26 | from North German Broadcasting logo
A woman drinks red wine from a wine glass. © Colourbox Photo: Colourbox

Alcoholic drinks can be addictive. Around two million adults in Germany are addicted to alcohol, and many more drink too much. But even without extreme consumption, alcohol can cause numerous illnesses. It is carcinogenic and can damage the liver or heart, among other things. In an interview, renowned alcohol researcher Prof. Helmut Seitz explains which illnesses are at risk and what those affected can do.

How dangerous is alcohol really?

Prof. Helmut Seitz: Over 200 illnesses are caused by alcohol consumption. Alcohol can damage the pancreas, the heart, the central and peripheral nervous system and the muscles. Long-term alcohol abuse can also lead to psychological impairments. These can include frequent mood swings, anxiety, depression and even the risk of suicide. The liver is particularly at risk, of course, as it is where the alcohol is mainly metabolized, i.e. broken down: Fifty percent of all alcohol-related deaths are caused by the liver.

And unfortunately not everyone has realized it yet: alcohol is carcinogenic! Alcohol is one of the “top ten” substances that cause cancer.

It is estimated that more than 20,000 new cases of cancer in Germany in 2022 will be attributable to alcohol consumption. The proportion of deaths associated with alcohol for cancers of the oral cavity, throat, larynx and esophagus is 23 to 30 percent, and the proportion for colon and breast cancer is ten percent. However, if one looks at the frequency of colon cancer and breast cancer in Germany, alcohol plays a role that should not be underestimated.

What exactly is the harm of alcohol?

Seitz: Alcohol itself, i.e. ethanol, is not that dangerous. It is the products that break down alcohol – especially acetaldehyde – that are dangerous: it is highly toxic and, as scientifically proven, carcinogenic.

The liver can actually convert acetaldehyde into a harmless acetic acid molecule, but if there is too much acetaldehyde, the liver simply cannot keep up. Acetaldehyde is also produced in the mouth: the bacteria there metabolize alcohol into acetaldehyde – this means that alcohol consumption can also lead to cancer of the mouth, larynx or esophagus.

In addition to acetaldehyde, free radicals in alcohol pose a major health risk: These oxygen molecules bind to other molecules – unfortunately also to genetic material – and cause damage there.

Acetaldehyde and free radicals are just the toxic components of alcohol consumption. There are also other mechanisms that are harmful to health. Byproducts of alcohol breakdown can, for example, cause liver diseases such as fatty liver.

Further information

Gastroentereologist, hepatologist and alcohol researcher Prof. Dr. med Helmut Seitz © Helmut Seitz

On the Red Sofa on Wednesday, June 12, from 6:45 p.m., the alcohol researcher also offers hope: It is often not too late to stop drinking alcohol. more

Do we drink too much alcohol in Germany?

Seitz: We have eight million people in Germany who consume alcohol in a way that is hazardous to their health, and two million people are addicted to alcohol. These are alarmingly high numbers and they clearly mean that our society as a whole drinks too much. The Italians, for example, who are known for their wine culture, drink two liters of pure alcohol per capita less per year than we Germans. We are also ahead of Russia, for example. So overall, we are unfortunately at the top of the world when it comes to alcohol consumption.

Why do people drink alcohol?

Seitz: Drinking habits have changed: In today’s world, we are under a lot of stress, we are online 24 hours a day, we are under pressure to meet expectations and to succeed. And how do I get rid of the pressure? I can jog, of course, that would make sense and many people do that. But many people drink alcohol to relax. That is also easy because alcohol is very accepted in our society. There is almost pressure to drink on many social occasions. And in many families, children are shown that alcohol is “normal”; they practically grow up drinking alcohol.

Furthermore, in our society, which is perhaps a little “cooler” socially, many people are lonely, especially older people. And some of them turn to alcohol to numb their feelings.

How much alcohol are you allowed to drink?

Seitz: We now know that even those who drink small amounts of alcohol have an increased risk of illness and premature death compared to people who live without alcohol. In the past, methodologically inadequate studies have repeatedly led to moderate alcohol consumption being described as potentially beneficial to health – this has been scientifically refuted.

If you drink a glass of beer or wine once or twice a week, you generally don’t need to worry. But you should always be cautious and alert: one beer a day after work can quickly turn into two or three. And after a few months, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll notice that you can’t get away from it, you’re addicted.

Is alcohol equally dangerous for everyone?

Seitz: Every person has an individual risk – this means that some are at risk even from the smallest amounts of alcohol. Certain genetic factors can, for example, lead to the breakdown of acetaldehyde in the liver not working well or not working at all. In addition, alcohol is extremely dangerous if you have a number of pre-existing conditions or are taking certain medications. Liver diseases are of course particularly relevant – and those affected are often not even aware of them.

Alcohol is more dangerous for older people because metabolism and thus the breakdown of alcohol, like all functions in the body, deteriorates with age. The enzymes responsible for the breakdown become fewer.

Women generally seem to be more at risk?

Seitz: Alcohol generally damages women more quickly and more severely than men. For example, if you extrapolate this over ten or twenty years, women will suffer liver damage in half the time if they drink half as much alcohol.

Why this is so is not yet known exactly. One reason is probably that women have less body fluid and therefore the alcohol level is higher for the same amount of alcohol intake per kilogram of body weight. The second reason is probably a disruption of alcohol metabolism in the stomach: up to eight percent of alcohol metabolism takes place in the stomach and women are much worse off than men. A third point has to do with women’s estrogen: alcohol impairs the Menopause causes the breakdown of estrogen. Estrogens can then be converted into fat in the liver and, secondly, higher estrogen levels lead to an increased risk of breast cancer.

What can I do if I am addicted?

Seitz: If an addiction occurs, the patient must undergo detoxification therapy – and this is actually only possible in an inpatient setting. Today, there is what is known as qualified detoxification, which is three weeks in hospital. This time can also be shortened to seven to ten days if necessary. In detoxification therapy, alcohol is completely eliminated – and a sedative is given as a substitute. This substance is then slowly tapered off, i.e. discontinued. The patient is then “clean”, detoxified. But the big problem is of course: how do you stay detoxified, how do you not fall back again? A second step is important for a successful path out of addiction: detoxification therapy. This is basically talk therapy.

What would help to reduce alcohol consumption in Germany, which is high compared to other countries?

Seitz: I think three things are important here: Firstly, we should avoid advertising in public areas. Advertising appeals to a lot of young people and we should protect them. Secondly, and the Scandinavians have shown us this, we should limit the availability of alcohol. You shouldn’t be able to buy alcohol on motorways or petrol stations between ten o’clock in the evening and six o’clock in the morning – petrol stations and alcohol don’t go well together. If alcohol isn’t always available, most people will drink less.

And the third thing: alcohol should be taxed more heavily. In Germany, for example, we have a historical tradition of not taxing wine. If, as in Scandinavia, a wine costs ten euros, some people will think twice about how many glasses they order. Higher taxation would also make sense because we as a society pay a lot for alcohol: When I see that we earn three billion euros in total from alcohol tax in Germany and at the same time have to spend well over 50 billion euros a year on alcohol-related illnesses, that is an unhealthy discrepancy.

The interview was conducted by Tina Roth

Further information

View through the so-called intoxication glasses © picture alliance / dpa | Peter Steffen Photo: Peter Steffen

In the city center of Hamburg, you can experience how alcohol affects the body while sober in a drunk goggles course. more

Several wine bottles are on a table in Hamburg, while a woman can be seen in the background. (staged scene) © picture alliance / dpa Themendienst Photo: Christin Klose

The “Alcohol Action Week” will take place nationwide from June 9th to 16th. There are also numerous events in Hamburg. more

A man crosses his hands in front of a glass of wine. © Imago/Panthermedia Photo: Andrey Popov

Your stomach, heart and liver will benefit from abstaining from alcohol after a relatively short period of time. How much alcohol is safe? more

A pregnant woman holds a glass of wine in her hand © COLOURBOX Photo: -

Fetal alcohol syndrome is one of the most common disabilities. Even one glass of alcohol can cause serious damage to the unborn child. more

A teenager sits behind bottles of alcohol © Picture Alliance Photo: Jens Büttner

Often, untreated trauma is behind alcohol addiction. How can it be treated? more

This topic in the program:

NDR Television | DAS! | 12.06.2024 | 18:45