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If you have ever broken or fractured a bone, you know how painful it can be. You know, too, that it can take a long time to heal. One thing you may not be aware of, however, is that alcohol can affect the rate at which broken bones heal.

A new study completed in 2013 by scientists at Loyola University Medical Center shows why alcohol can adversely affect bone healing. Researchers discovered that excessive alcohol can stop a key protein from enlisting the help of stem cells required to form the cartilage needed for bone repair. Normally, without the alcohol overload, fracture sites are flooded with cartilage to strengthen the bone and to help it heal. Mice given excessive alcohol showed:

  • 50% less osteopontin protein
  • Less mineralized callus (the cartilaginous substance that covers a fracture while it heals)
  • More oxidative stress (a condition that slows down healing)

Researchers have long known that excessive alcohol can hinder the healing of breaks. Studies have also shown that too much alcohol, especially early in life, can have detrimental effects on bone health later in life. One effect is an increased risk of osteoporosis.

With overdrinking, the body cannot absorb enough calcium to replenish the bones. Over time, the relative lack of calcium in the system leads to the element being leached from the bones, much as a grain of salt dissolves in a glass of water.

Too much alcohol can also wreak havoc on the pancreas and liver, each of which plays an important role in the bone-building process. The pancreas normally absorbs calcium and vitamin D (a vitamin important in bone health). The liver is vital for activating vitamin D and thus the absorption of calcium.

Alcohol can also interfere with the body’s hormones, leading to slower bone buildup and faster bone loss. Alcohol can increase the parathyroid hormone and cortisol. With more parathyroid, more bone leaching occurs. With greater amounts of cortisol from alcohol consumption, bone formation slows and bone density decreases. Moreover, excessive alcohol destroys osteoblasts, which are the cells that make new bone material.

As anyone familiar with alcohol consumption knows, drinking too much also results in a loss of balance, which can result in falls and possibly broken bones.

But Maybe Not All Bad?

Another study found that moderate alcohol consumption (½–2 drinks per day) in post-menopausal women slowed the rate of bone loss. If the women stopped drinking for a two-week period, however, their bodies created more of a chemical that accompanies increased bone loss. Within 12–14 hours of resuming moderate drinking, the chemical marker decreased markedly. Women who had been moderate drinkers showed greater bone density than those who abstained. In fact, the more women drank in the moderate range, the better things looked for their bone health.

Spinal Health and the Case for Abstaining From Alcohol

As with nearly everything else in life, moderation generally seems to be the key when it comes to alcohol. Even so, there are some situations related to bone and joint health where even moderate drinking may be a bad idea. While doctors are not certain why, alcohol seems to aggravate certain spinal conditions such as facet disease, herniated discs, degenerative disc disease and foraminal stenosis. The symptoms of these same conditions often appear to improve when alcohol is eliminated entirely. For this reason, people who suffer from back pain may want to consider avoiding alcohol altogether.


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