Keeping Fit - Drugs, chemicals, and alcohol

Most substances consumed in excess cause temporary problems at the least, and permanent damage to your health at the worst. As you age your body is less and less able to tolerate excesses. An additional problem is that the effects of overindulgence accumulate during your lifetime. This accumulation can increase your chances for such health problems as cancer, cirrhosis (a liver disease), and heart disease. Use of tobacco products, alcohol, caffeine, and other chemicals can have both short-term and long-term effects.

  1. • Cigarettes and other tobacco products contain a substance called nicotine that experts now recognize to be an addictive drug. Cigarette and cigar smoke also contain at least 40 known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). Continued use of a tobacco product has a cumulative effect on your body. For example, your body becomes less able to remove carcinogens. The delicate tissues of the kidneys, liver, lungs, or other vital organs can become damaged. You increase your chances of developing lung cancer or cardiovascular disease. Some damage may be reversed if you break your habit. Other effects, however, may be permanent. By using a tobacco product, you risk scarring tissue, developing cancer, and premature death.
  2. • Binge drinking or drug taking puts you at risk for an overdose, which causes major trauma to the body and can result in death. Binging on cigarettes, food, or caffeine may not result in such an immediate response, but the short-term damage to your body can be substantial.


Nicotine is both psychologically and physically addictive. When you smoke, nicotine enters your body through the membranes of your mouth, throat, lungs, and related areas. When you chew tobacco, nicotine enters your body through the membranes of your mouth. When the nicotine reaches your brain, it produces feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, calm, or alertness. As you repeatedly expose your body to nicotine, you become used to having a certain amount every day.

Although the nicotine habit is hard to break, there are many benefits to doing so. Lung cancer, which is primarily caused by smoking, kills about 160,000 Americans a year. People with lung cancer have only a 14 percent survival rate for living five years after diagnosis, even with treatment. In addition, cigarette smoking is believed to be a major cause of emphysema (a disease that decreases efficiency of the lungs), which kills more than 15,000 people a year. Approximately 100,000 smokers die from heart attacks each year. According to the American Cancer Society, however, breathing becomes easier and coughing decreases one to nine months after you quit smoking. Five years after you quit, your chance of developing lung cancer decreases by 50 percent. After 15 years of not smoking, your chance of developing cardiovascular disease, which can cause a heart attack, is not much greater than that of someone who has not smoked.

It is therefore important to stop smoking. Today there are several methods to help you quit.

The nicotine patch is a bandage-shaped patch that is placed on the skin each day. Nicotine on the patch is absorbed through the skin. The patches are used in a series that contains less and less nicotine, allowing you to wean yourself from the drug. Patches are available over-the-counter or through prescription.

Nicotine gum is a gum that, when chewed, releases nicotine into the body through the mouth. A chewing pattern must be followed when using nicotine gum. It is chewed slowly until a peppery taste comes out. It is then placed between the cheek and gums until this taste disappears. Then the gum is discarded. Most people chew about 10 pieces a day. The gum is available over-the-counter.

Nicotine nasal spray is a spray containing nicotine that you inhale through your nose. The nicotine is absorbed into your body through your nasal lining. This product is available only through prescription.

The nicotine inhaler is composed of a mouthpiece and a plastic cartridge containing nicotine. When you use the inhaler, you release nicotine into your mouth and throat. This product is available only through prescription.

Pills containing bupropion hydro-chloride (marketed under the name Zyban) are also available. Zyban contains no nicotine. Medication in the pill is absorbed into the body through the digestive system. Experts believe the medicine works by raising levels of certain chemicals in the brain. This increase causes a person to feel good and experience decreased nicotine cravings. These pills are available only through prescription.

When using any of the medical products described here, it is important not to smoke or chew tobacco. This is necessary to avoid having an overdose of nicotine. Also, if you have such medical problems as high blood pressure, you should consult with your doctor before using any type of stop-smoking aid. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should also consult with their physicians before using any of the stop-smoking aids, even those available over the counter.


Experts believe that caffeine works on the central nervous system: fatigue and drowsiness fade while mental activities quicken. Too much caffeine, however, can produce headaches, irritability, and confusion. Some experts also believe that postmenopausal women who get little calcium and consume a large amount of caffeine may increase their risk of bone loss.

Caffeine is found both in foods and beverages. Tea leaves have almost twice as much caffeine as an equal weight of coffee. However, the amount of caffeine in a cup of tea is less than that in a cup of coffee because the amount of tea leaves used is relatively small. Coffee, colas, and chocolate are other popular items containing caffeine. Consult with your physician if caffeine consumption is a problem for you. If you find that you need a caffeine beverage to keep going, you might be better off taking a rest instead.


Studies in recent years have shown that the moderate use of alcohol can have some surprising benefits. Experts still agree, however, that there are no health benefits to heavy drinking, binge drinking, or alcoholism. (For a discussion of alcoholism, see the section “Alcohol Abuse” in Ch. 29, Substance Abuse .) Moderate drinking in middle age means no more than one drink per day for a woman, two per day for a man. By the time people reach their mid-60's, their daily intake of alcohol should decrease from these levels. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine or 1½ ounces of 80-proof liquor.

Studies indicate that the potential benefits of moderate drinking are a lowered risk of developing heart disease, a lowered risk of developing diabetes, a higher level of HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol), and a lower risk of developing dangerous blood clots. Not everyone, however, may benefit from moderate drinking. For example, there are indications that such drinking may increase a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. There is also the possibility that drinking may increase the chance for cancers of the mouth, throat, or liver for both men and women.

Other factors, such as your medical history and medications that you take, may also influence the amount of benefit you receive from moderate drinking. It is important, therefore, to discuss the health benefits of drinking with your doctor who will know your individualized needs. It is not generally recommended that someone start drinking for health reasons.

Alcohol and Responsibility

Alcohol in any amount will affect your body, decreasing your ability to concentrate, your coordination, and your ability to react quickly. Remember, it is never safe to drink and drive. If you are at a party, meeting, luncheon, or other gathering where alcohol is offered but you do not wish to drink, there are a number of ways to politely pass up alcohol. Say “no thanks” if you do not want an alcoholic beverage. There should be plenty of other beverage options, such as juices, soda pops, or mineral waters. There is nothing socially improper about not drinking alcohol. You may also consider volunteering to be the designated driver. Designated drivers agree before a party or other gathering not to have any alcoholic drinks so that they then are able to safely drive others home. Alcohol is high in calories, and dieters may wish to avoid it. Whatever your reason, however, never allow yourself to be pressured into drinking when you do not want to.


Alcohol is toxic and is deadly in large quantities. It is not unheard of for people to die of alcohol poisoning after they have ingested too much. Blacking out, passing out, vomiting, and headache are all signs of having overindulged in alcohol. A hangover is the unpleasant feeling you may experience after you have had too much alcohol. Hangovers are characterized by such symptoms as headache, dry mouth, and upset stomach. Although there are numerous suggestions to speed recovery from a hangover—such as drinking warm broths, eating sugary foods, or having cup after cup of coffee—these quick fixes are not effective. Medicines, such as antacids and pain relievers, and vitamins, such as C and B-complex, may relieve symptoms, but there is no cure for a hangover. Your body needs time to recover.

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