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Amy Winehouse: Sudden Death from Alcohol Poisoning

Amy Winehouse was a British jazz singer and songwriter who won five Grammy Awards and had an album, Back to Black, that became the best-selling album so far in 21st century Britain. The BBC called her "the pre-eminent vocal talent of her generation."

Her rise from poverty to wealth and fame was such a burden that she spent her brief adult life suffering from bulemia, manic depression, insecurity, multiple affairs, and drug and alcohol abuse. On July 23, 2011, she died of alcohol poisoning. At the time of her death she had a blood alcohol level of 416 mg per 100 ml (0.416%), which is more than five times the legal limit for driving. Three empty vodka bottles were found in her room.

From Early Fame to Self-Destruction
Amy was born in north London in 1983, to a father who was a taxi driver and a mother who was a pharmacist. Her mother's brothers were professional jazz musicians, and her father's mother was a singer who dated English jazz legend Ronnie Scott. Her parents separated when she was nine, and she lived with her mother during the week and spent weekends with her father and his girlfriend. That same year, she started voice and tap dance lessons. At age 14, she bought a guitar and started to write songs. At age 17, she sang with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. As her success grew, her father gave up driving a taxi to manage her career. At 19, she signed a contract for £250 a week against her future earnings. Her first album, Frank, featured mostly songs that she had written herself.

In 2004, when she was 21, she met her future husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to hard drugs. By age 22, Amy was destroying herself with too much drugs and alcohol and too little food from a disorder called bulemia. At 23, she hired an all-girl band, the Dap-Kings, to back her up for both recordings and tours. At 24, her album Back to Black was the best-selling album in Britain, selling 1.85 million copies in that year alone.

By 2007, at age 24, she was famous all over the world and earning high fees for both her recordings and concerts. In November 2007, at the opening night of a 17-date tour, members of the audience booed and walked out on her concert. She cried and stumbled on the stage and swore at the audience. News reports said that she was drunk. At the end of the month, she announced she was cancelling all performances and public appearances for the rest of the year.

The following year, she won five Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album, and Best New Artist. Her albums continued to be top sellers and her touring was going well, but in September she started a concert more than an hour late, which caused the promoter to stop her show early because she had gone past the curfew time. She stormed off the stage showing tremendous anger. In May 2009 she gave a concert and stumbled, was shaky on her feet, and forgot words in her songs. In February 2011 she was booed for appearing drunk on stage, and in June she was booed off the stage for being too drunk to perform.

The Downward Spiral
Winehouse married Fielder-Civil in 2007. They were arrested in Norway for possession of marijuana, and six months later, he was arrested for punching a London pub owner in the face. He was jailed for assault and for trying to bribe his victim to keep him from testifying. Fielder-Civil served 27 months in prison and after his release, he was sent back for further drug problems. Meanwhile, Winehouse cancelled tours to be hospitalized to help her stop using heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine and alcohol. She admitted to the news media that she was manic depressive. In 2008 her father tried to have her committed against her will. While still married to Fielder-Civil, she spent a month in the Caribbean with a 21-year old rugby player Josh Bowman. Fielder-Civil divorced her in 2009. She appeared for concerts in sloppy clothing and had cuts on her legs and arms. In 2009, she was arrested for hitting a woman in the eye and the following year she was arrested for punching a theater manager when he asked her to move from her seat. Her critics noted that she wore the same clothes for several days in a row, her face was covered with thick make-up, she had stopped combing her hair, she was thin as a rail and always had a cigarette in her mouth. Various reports state that Winehouse also suffered from shortness of breath and irregular heartbeats caused by emphysema, permanent lung damage caused by her heavy cigarette and cocaine smoking. She was reported to have used nicotine patches to help her stop smoking cigarettes. She was found dead in her apartment on July 23, 2011.

Last performance

How Alcohol Poisoning can Cause Sudden Death
Alcohol is a poison that can damage every cell in your body and when it damages your heart, you can die suddenly (Int J Environ Res Public Health, Dec 6, 2009;6(12):3070–3081). People with alcoholic heart damage almost always have damaged livers. The liver is the only organ in the body that breaks down alcohol, and when it is damaged, drinking any amount of alcohol causes prolonged high blood levels of alcohol that can damage the heart nerves. This can cause irregular heart beats so the heart stops pumping blood through the body. High blood levels of alcohol can also damage the brain to cause seizures that stop you from breathing (Seizure, July 2007;16(5):379–383). Signs of brain damage caused by a single bout of drinking include confusion and stupor, vomiting, seizures, irregular breathing, passing out and even death.

A healthy liver can break down alcohol efficiently but it does it at a fixed rate. It takes one hour for your liver to break down most of the alcohol in 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 2/3rds of a shot glass of hard liquor. Each additional drink beyond that amount will raise blood levels of alcohol. Alcohol is converted by your liver to acetaldehyde, which binds to and destroys liver cells to cause cirrhosis. Acetaldehyde can combine with DNA to form many different cancer-causing compounds (Int J Environ Res Public Health, Dec 2010;7(12):4281–4304). It binds to mitochondria in your cells to block the main source of cellular energy.

What You Can Learn from Her Story
* Binge drinking can be even more harmful than taking alcohol every day. Taking too much alcohol at one time can kill you by causing irregular heartbeats or brain damage.
* Any amount of alcohol has health risks. If your liver is damaged from any cause, excess fat accumulates in your liver, your liver loses its capacity to break down alcohol, and your blood alcohol level can rise too high even with moderate drinking. Recent research shows that any amount of alcohol can increase cancer risk.
* If you see signs of self-destructive behavior in someone you love (or in yourself), seek professional help.

Amy Winehouse
September 14, 1983 - July 23, 2011

July 12th, 2015
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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