Our Evolving Relationship with Alcohol

a caveman is drunk for drinking too much wine
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If you believe that our bodies are built to best function under something close to what we experienced in the caveman days, alcohol can be a tricky issue. The ability of mankind to metabolize it may depend on evolutionary tendencies.

Fermentation is a natural process, and evidence of human consumption of fermented beverages dates back ten thousand years. So why does a six-pack of beer or a few glasses of wine lead to headaches and discomfort in the short term, and perhaps serious health issues over time?

Alcohol has been around in some form since the Cretaceous Period, over 65.5 million years ago, when the necessary enzymes were first produced for exploiting rotting fruit.

Since the dawn of recorded history, humanity has consumed ethyl alcohol in various beverages, in part because it is so easy to make. Alcohol can be fermented from almost anything, from fruits to grains to assorted plants.

It is necessary to define what is meant by “adapting to alcohol.” This isn’t saying that people can drink a case of beer or cask of wine, get into the car and drive without a problem.

Instead, it refers to the body’s ability to metabolize the alcohol quickly, thereby removing the toxins from the bloodstream before they can cause tissue and organ destruction.

One thing we see is that different segments of the population adapt to alcohol in different ways. In Europe, for example, beer and wine have long been common parts of the diet.

In fact, in Medieval Europe such beverages were more often consumed than water, in part because they seemed like healthier options given the condition of available the water supply.

Not surprisingly, then, many with European genetic backgrounds have a genetic makeup that gives them a relatively high tolerance to alcohol today, perhaps because over the centuries their bodies developed a better ability to process it.

Contrast that with native populations in North and South America. In most cases, alcohol was exceedingly rare there until the arrival of European conquerors and colonizers a few centuries ago.

The indigenous populations have had less time to adapt via the genetic combination that would metabolize the toxicity quickly, and that could explain the alcoholism and other alcohol-related health problems that those segments of the population experience.

For early man, the ability to spot alcohol may have been an advantage, as the ability to sniff out its presence via overripe fruit would have been a survival skill. That could explain the studies that show a serving or two of wine or beer has health benefits.

However, as one study notes, that is less of an advantage when spotting alcohol only involves a trip to the local store.

Scientists are increasingly looking at evolutionary factors as they study the causes and effects of alcoholism. Evolutionary biology could offer a better clue as to how humans have developed their tolerance for metabolizing alcohol, and what health implications that might have down the road.

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