I’ve seen people “treat” themselves with alcohol for many stated reasons. They include:
1. Getting blitzed to “forget everything” (causes have includes faltering love affairs, financial crashes, dying plants, poor calculus grades and “no reason except I want to.”)
2. Fight off radiation sickness (recommended by a Russian virologist – who was still alive.)
3. Throw off hallucinations
4. Diminish panic attacks
5. Celebrate a 30th birthday (ending up in the ICU with respiratory failure)
6. Getting rid of a cold
7. Meet an old girlfriend/boyfriend.
However, I was recently more impressed to find alcohol used by British cardiologists in a new way. They injected directly into the heart.
Their purpose – to cause a heart attack.
Their intent – to save a man’s life.
Your Electrical Heart
Most people have drummed in through PR announcements, Big Pharma drug ads, celebrity pronouncements or the very vaguely recalled facts of high school health class that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US – and, thanks to the beneficence of global economic and nutritional changes – much of the world. But do you know what “causes” those heart deaths?
Half the time (according to the Cleveland Clinic) it’s sudden cardiac death.
The heart’s electrical system fails. No electrical conduction system, no blood flow. No blood flow, no life.
Gone, baby, gone.
The heart is a pump. That’s what all that heart muscle does. It takes the blood flowing in and pumps it out to the lungs and the rest of the body.
But all that heart muscle needs a controller. That’s your heart’s electrical system.
It’s very neat stuff. Think of it as a bunch of gorgeous pearls strung out in wavy, elastic, ever moving lines.
These specialized pacing cells communicate continuously. Like most cells, in part they do it through electricity. And they don’t just communicate with each other. They direct the muscle cells when to pump.
Better living through electricity.
But what happens when those cells don’t pace accurately?
Most of the time – not much. We call these events arrhythmias – heart conduction disturbances.
People have little arrhythmias all the time. One of the fun bits for cardiology departments in olden days was to take sleep addled interns and put heart monitors on them. Then they would ask the “research subjects” to present their recent cases – especially the ones that turned out badly – before cadres of faculty, residents, interns and students.
The result – hundreds of arrhythmias! Popping blooping bunches of them – premature ventricular contractions all over the place.
The interns generally never noticed a thing.
Which is what happens to most of us. Much of the time we don’t notice any arrhythmias unless something else happens – like getting short of breath or feeling our chest jump.
Which is one reason arrhythmias kill so many young people.
Attacking the Heart To Save It
In the British case, the man was suffering from ventricular tachycardia. VTach can quickly lead to ventricular fibrillation. If your heart rhythm fibrillates into chaos and heart paddles are not handy, you do not survive.
And many arrhythmias themselves occur because some of the pacemaking cells have died or work out of rhythm. In older folks, that’s often due to coronary artery disease.
But if you kill off those off-pacing cells – or sometimes just change the scarified areas they work through – normal rhythms often assert themselves. You can nullify the offending cells several ways.
In this case, the British docs used alcohol – a major pantoxin. Alcohol kills most types of cell in the body. They injected, caused a heart attack, and killed a specific bunch of heart tissue.
The ventricular tachycardia went away. Other pacemaking cells took over. He got much better.
In small, regular doses alcohol may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. At least that’s what happens when you study teetotalers versus regular, small dose alcohol imbibers.
But as British medic and biostatistician Ben Goldacre has pointed out, teetotalers may not be a good control group. Many don’t drink for religious or cultural reasons that may make them very different from the general population. And alcohol in irregular, high dose certainly causes arrhythmias. There’s even a disease named for it – holiday heart syndrome.
When Mom or Dad has a few too many shots on Christmas Even, they may precipitate a rather nasty arrhythmia. Most of the time though, they won’t die.
Unfortunately, that’s not always true of young people.
Young At Heart or Young Hearts?
Hundreds of teenagers and twenty somethings suddenly die across the US each year. Most people don’t know why.
Now you do – it’s often from arrhythmias.
Arrhythmias in young people are sometimes inborn. They develop rare conditions like Wolff-Parkinson-White, a sometimes fatal arrhythmia.
But most times nothing happens until there’s a precipitating event. Those precipitating events happen all the time.
That’s because young people experiment a lot.
They put together lots of stuff. Energy drinks with alcohol – so they don’t notice the sedation. Bath salts with stimulants meant for ADD. Tobacco plus PCP plus cocaine. Oxycontin and sleeping pills and alcohol – and then add energy drinks or stimulants to stay awake and keep the high going.
Or sometimes they just overwork their bodies in athletic practices and don’t replenish quickly enough with water and electrolytes.
These sudden deaths are often caused by arrhythmias. Open up the hearts on autopsy and they usually look fine.
No coronary artery disease to speak of. Nice looking muscle cells.
But the pacemaking cells did not work right. And all they needed were seconds of trouble to end it all.
If you think of the heart as a pump, don’t just focus on anatomy – like coronary artery narrowing – but on physiology. Though the mechanism is often coronary artery disease, it’s frequently arrhythmias that kill people. It happens a lot in sudden deaths of young people.
And alcohol can cause those arrhythmias – or if you do things right, help prevent them.
If you drink, you want to drink at the right times and the right amounts.
Like most other information you give your body to regenerate properly – timing is key.
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