Ever since the revelation referred to as the “Word of Wisdom,” and now contained in D&C 89, was given to the Prophet Joseph Smith there has been talk of whether or not it is an effective physical health standard. I think it is perhaps beyond argument that it is effective spiritually, at least for those who believe that obedience to God’s word will bring them closer to Him (John 14:23), but the revelation also notes physical and mental benefits for keeping this word of wisdom, which can also have spiritual side effects:
- “shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones” (v18)
- “shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” (v19)
- “shall run and not be weary” (v20)
- “shall walk and not faint” (v20)
- “the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them” (v21)
I shared my relative’s story, Creed Haymond, in my last post (or rather Creed shared it), which is a clear example of obedience to the Word of Wisdom blessing one to be able to “run and not be weary” and “walk and not faint.”
But there are many who still question the physical benefits of the Word of Wisdom, for one reason or another. For example, some might point to studies which show that there might be a health benefit to a low consumption of alcohol, as evidence against the Word of Wisdom. However, I believe there exists an abundance of scientific evidence that the proscriptions contained in the Word of Wisdom are for our general health benefit, both physically and mentally, and therefore also spiritually, much of which evidence has come to light since the revelation was given to Joseph Smith in 1833. I will give only one good example, which I just today came across.
Acetaldehyde (also known as ethanal) is an “organic chemical compound with the formula CH3 CHO, sometimes abbreviated by chemists as MeCHO (Me = methyl).” It occurs naturally in nature, and also through industrial processes. What makes it interesting in this context is that this single chemical is present in all of the main proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom, namely the consumption of coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco. It’s presence in coffee and tea is perhaps minor, but it is a large component of both alcohol drinking and tobacco smoke, which can lead to serious health consequences.
In alcohol drinking, this chemical is produced by the oxidation of ethanol, when alcohol in the liver is broken down by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. As such, acetaldehyde is a byproduct and a much more toxic substance (as much as 30x) than the alcohol from which it derives. It is associated with most of the clinical and pathogenic effects of alcohol consumption, including hangovers. Not only is it toxic, but mutagenic, and carcinogenic, causing such diseases as cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
A combination of topical and digestive tract acetaldehyde may also result from drinking alcohol, as many bacterial microbes produce the chemical from ethanol, and so it can accumulate in the saliva during drinking, and in the esophagus, stomach and colon, which can cause digestive tract cancers including esophageal cancer, stomach cancer, and colorectal cancer. It can cause a number of adverse reactions in humans, when it comes in contact with the skin or ingested:
Acetaldehyde is an irritant of the skin, eyes, mucous membranes, throat and respiratory tract. Symptoms of exposure to this compound include nausea, vomiting, headache. These symptoms may not happen immediately. It has a general narcotic action and large doses can even cause death by respiratory paralysis. It may also cause drowsiness, delirium, hallucinations and loss of intelligence. Exposure may also cause severe damage to the mouth, throat and stomach; accumulation of fluid in the lungs, chronic respiratory disease, kidney and liver damage, throat irritation, dizziness, reddening and swelling of the skin.1
In addition, some people have an inherited genetic mutation which causes the body to not produce the enzymes necessary to break down acetaldehyde, namely aldehyde dehydrogenase (caused by a variant in the ALDH2 gene). Such a genetic deficiency can cause a build up of acetaldehyde in the body while drinking, which can cause serious side effects such Alcohol Flush Syndrome, and has been associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.
Similarly, acetaldehyde is a significant element in tobacco smoke, and so it is brought in to the body via the lungs and through swallowing while smoking (it is dissolved into the saliva). It also works synergistically with the nicotine, increasing smoking’s addictive nature. Likewise it is found in marijuana smoke. Studies in marijuana showed that the presence of acetaldehyde in the smoke causes DNA damage, or mutations in DNA, which can also cause cancers such as lung cancer.
It is clear that acetaldehyde is a serious danger to the physical health of our bodies and minds. I think it is interesting that some of the reactions of the brain to acetaldehyde are “delirium, hallucinations and loss of intelligence,” not to mention the mentally degenerative nature of Alzheimer’s. This is insightful in light of verse 19 of D&C 89, which calls attention to increases in wisdom and knowledge by obedience to the Word of Wisdom. The digestive tract has often been associated with the navel and nourishment (v18), and this can have severe problems, as we’ve seen, when it comes in contact with acetaldehyde. When the chemical is produced in the liver from alcohol, it enters the blood which has its source in bone marrow (v18). And, of course, the many problems associated with human contact with acetaldehyde can ultimately be fatal (v21).
Yet most of our understanding of acetaldehyde came long after 1833, when studies in organic chemistry matured. Although the chemical was first isolated in 1774 by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, it wasn’t until 1835 that the structure and composition of the chemical was obtained by chemist Justus Von Liebig in Germany, who also named the chemical, two years after the Word of Wisdom was revealed. Further observations of the chemical were made in 1881 by Kutscherow. The deleterious nature of the chemical (as noted in this post) was likely only beginning to be understood much later, in the twentieth century. Much of this understanding has come to light just in the past few years, such as the genetic correlations.
This is just one example of how the proscribed substances of the Word of Wisdom can be detrimental to us physically and mentally, and therefore also spiritually. Acetaldehyde is only one of the many harmful chemicals in these substances, and therefore only one of many reasons why the Lord may have counseled the Saints that these were “not for the belly” (D&C 89:7).Notes: