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Alcohol, Underage Drinking and Why Alcohol Affects Us
ORIGINS OF ALCOHOL
In his book, Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture and Control, David Hanson traces the origins of the use of alcohol. He points out that beer jugs were found in excavations of Stone Age dwellings that were dated about 10,000 B.C. Beer and wine were important to the ancient Egyptians.
Dr. Hansen points out that alcoholic beverages were often considered as a food source—if used in moderation. Alcohol was an important part of many religious services. In fact, some religious scholars have speculated that, in addition to preventing the ravages that were often caused by alcohol, Mohammed may have forbade his Islamic followers from drinking alcohol to clearly differentiate his religion from other religions.
He points out that whiskey was apparently first distilled in Ireland prior to the 16th century and became a staple in Scotland, and soon the distilling of spirits rapidly spread to other parts of the world.
Just like many tourists use the excuse that the water is bad in Mexico to allow them to drink more beer, from ancient times, alcohol was often consumed because the water was unsafe.
Along with this, alcohol has long been thought to have medicinal qualities. Alcohol was used to clean wounds and as an anesthetic when operations needed to be done and no other anesthesia was available.
Dr. Hanson points out that throughout history, there has been much attention to the abuse of alcohol. In some societies this was dealt with more harshly than others, but all societies have understood that there were real liabilities associated with the use of alcohol.
The great novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald became an alcoholic, and this is thought to have led to his early death. He said something that applies to many, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
For many of us, the consumption of alcohol was a rite of passage—it was something that we all did to show that we were becoming adults. However, few of us ever understood just what was happening when we were drinking and why some of us were dancing around with a lampshade on our head and others of us just went to sleep. Unfortunately, all of us saw people who let alcohol ruin their lives.
Of all the abused substances in our society, alcohol is the only one that is both legal and readily available. When you consider the ease in which alcohol is available and the potential for abuse, it is important to understand what alcohol is and how it affects us.
Most of us assume that our children are smarter about alcohol than we were. They are not confronted with the constant alcohol advertisements on television. However this is apparently not true.
According to a just released study entitled, Underage Alcohol Use: Findings from the 2002-2006 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Office of Applied Studies. In this study there were many disturbing facts:
- More than 40% of the nation’s estimated 10.8 million underage current drinkers (persons aged 12 to 20 who drank in the past 30 days) were provided free alcohol by adults 21 or older, according to a nationwide report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- 1 in 16 underage drinkers (6.4% or 650,000) were given alcoholic beverages by their parents in the past month.
- Underage drinking is a problem responsible for the deaths of more than 5,000 people under the age of 21 every year in the United States.
- More than half (53.9%) of all people aged 12 to 20 engaged in underage drinking in their lifetime, ranging from 11.0% of 12-year-olds to 85.5% of 20- year-olds.
- An average of 3.5 million people aged 12 to 20 each year (9.4%) meet the diagnostic criteria for having an alcohol use disorder (dependence or abuse).
- About one in five people in this age group (7.2 million people) have engaged in binge drinking — consuming five or more drinks on at least one occasion in the past month.
- Among youths aged 12 to 14, the rate of current drinking was higher for females (7.7%) than males (6.3%), about equal for females and males among those aged 15 to 17 (27.6% and 27.3%, respectively), and lower for females than males among those aged 18 to 20 (47.9% vs. 54.4%).
- Over half (53.4%) of underage current alcohol users were at someone else’s home when they had their last drink, and 30.3% were in their own home; 9.4% were at a restaurant, bar or club.
As we all know, just telling someone not to do something but not providing a logical explanation of why normally does not accomplish much. Education has been a valid therapy since the beginning of time. At Novus Medical Detox Center, we find that most people who have become dependent/addicted to substances have little understanding of how these substances work. Once our patients understand more about the substances, then they are more able to be free of the substances.
Since most of us have a very elementary understanding of alcohol and how it affects us, it will be helpful to understand more about alcohol and its effects.
WHAT IS THE ALCOHOL IN ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES?
The alcohol in alcoholic beverages is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. (Ethanol is also used for fuel but it is obtained through a different process.)
Ethanol is produced by mixing yeast, sugars, and starches and fermenting them (breaking them down into their components). When the fermented alcohol is distilled, or heated and condensed into another vessel, it becomes a distilled drink like rum, gin, vodka and whiskey.
Because of the effects created by alcohol, most alcoholic beverages contain a small amount of alcohol. The amount of alcohol in beer is normally between four to six percent, in wine between seven to fifteen percent and in liquor between 40% to 95%.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DRINK ALCOHOL?
Since about 20% of the alcohol is being absorbed through the stomach, the rate of alcohol absorption is also influenced if there is food in the stomach. One study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences found that subjects who drank alcohol after a meal that included fat, protein, and carbohydrates absorbed the alcohol about three times more slowly than when they consumed alcohol on an empty stomach.
As the blood goes through the lungs, some of the alcohol will be expelled through the lungs. This is why a breathalyzer can measure a person’s intoxication level.
Most of the alcohol absorbed is metabolized in the liver through a series of chemical reactions (one of which produces the same chemical used to produce perfumes), by enzymes, which ultimately convert the alcohol into acetic acid (vinegar). If a person drinks too much, the liver cannot convert the alcohol into acetic acid and some of the chemicals formed by the enzymes escape into the bloodstream. These chemicals are more toxic than alcohol and are responsible for many hangover symptoms such as increased heart rate, headache, and nausea.
A small portion of the alcohol is metabolized through the P450 pathway and the CYP2E1 enzyme.
Alcohol prevents the release of body chemicals that regulate how much urine the kidneys make. The kidneys produce more urine than usual, and the drinker loses more water than usual, causing the drinker to become very thirsty. In extreme cases, a drinker may become seriously dehydrated— a condition where the amount of water in the body has dropped below the level needed for normal body function.
When a person consumes an alcoholic drink, the alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and small intestine and enters the bloodstream. The absorption rate is most dependent on the percentage of alcohol in the drink – the higher the percentage, the faster the absorption. Since part of the alcohol is being absorbed through the stomach, as mentioned before, if there is food in the stomach this will slow down the absorption of the alcohol. There are numerous other factors that affect alcohol absorption but these are the most important.
WHAT IS BLOOD ALCOHOL CONCENTRATION OR BAC?
BAC is amount of alcohol in the blood. It is a percentage determined by comparing the number of milligrams of alcohol in 100 milliliters of blood. For example, a BAC of .8%, the level used by most states to determine if a person is guilty of drunk driving, means that eight tenths of one percent of the fluid in the blood is alcohol.
WHAT INCREASES BAC?
The average person eliminates approximately 0.015% of alcohol per hour, the amount of alcohol in a 12-ounce can of beer, five ounces of wine or a one ounce shot glass of vodka. None of us are truly average and all of us metabolize alcohol differently, so an individual may eliminate alcohol from their bloodstream in different amounts but these amounts are averages and apply to most of us.
It is known that generally men will eliminate alcohol more rapidly than women. However, some men or women who are heavy consumers of alcohol may (depending on liver health) metabolize alcohol at a significantly higher rate than the average man or woman. Another factor is age. The body’s ability to metabolize and eliminate alcohol lessens as we get older.
For example, if a 160-pound person drinks six beers in an hour the BAC would be approximately 0.141% minus 0.015% or 0.126%. If the person waited another hour and did not have another drink, the BAC would reduce by another 0.015% to 0.111%. In both cases, if the person drove, was stopped and tested for BAC, they would be found guilty of driving while intoxicated.
However, please remember that while the numbers above reflect the averages, the percentage of alcohol that your body eliminates in an hour may vary and the BAC may vary. For example, if the person drinking six beers in an hour weighed 100 pounds, their BAC would be approximately 0.225% and if the person weighed 230 pounds their BAC would be approximately 0.098%.
WHAT IS BINGE DRINKING?
While many people consider binge drinking to be the consumption of many drinks over the course of several days, some define it as simply having more than five drinks on one occasion. Binge drinking has been defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as any episode of alcohol consumption that raises the BAC to 0.08% or above. The BAC can rise to over 0.08% in most people if men have more than 4 drinks within about two hours and if women have more than three drinks within about two hours.
A person who is abusing alcohol experiences:
- Harm to one’s health;
- Harm to one’s interpersonal relationships;
- Harm to one’s ability to work or fulfill responsibilities;
- Harm to one’s judgment of risks—like driving while intoxicated.
Alcohol abuse can lead to alcohol dependence or alcoholism. A person suffering from alcoholism or alcohol dependence has:
- A strong craving for alcohol;
- Continued use despite harm or personal injury;
- The inability to limit drinking;
- Physical illness when drinking stops;
- The need to increase the amount of alcohol consumed in order to feel the effects.
WHAT IS CIRRHOSIS OF THE LIVER?
Most of us have heard that cirrhosis of the liver is a side effect of alcohol abuse. However, most of us don’t really understand what this means. The liver is the largest organ in the body. It metabolizes most drugs, removes or neutralizes poisons from the blood, produces immune agents to control infection, and removes germs and bacteria from the blood. The liver also makes proteins that regulate blood clotting and produces bile to help absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins. Your quality of life is directly affected by the health of your liver, and no one can live without a functioning liver.
Cirrhosis is derived from the Greek word kirrhos, meaning “tawny” (the orange-yellow color of a diseased liver). Cirrhosis of the liver is a condition where scar tissue replaces normal, healthy tissue, blocks the flow of blood and prevents the liver from working as it should. Cirrhosis is the twelfth leading cause of death by disease.
Loss of liver function affects the body in many ways. Following are some of the common problems, or complications, caused by cirrhosis:
- Edema and ascites—accumulation of water in the legs and abdomen;
- Bruising and bleeding—caused by the liver not producing the proteins needed for blood clotting;
- Jaundice—a yellowing of the skin and eyes;
- Gallstones—bile is not produced and sent to the gallbladder;
- Accumulation of toxins in the blood or brain—toxins are not removed accumulate in the blood and brain causing things like neglect of personal appearance, unresponsiveness, forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, or changes in sleep habits;
- Improper metabolism of medications—medications are not removed from the blood and not only lessen any value from the medication but can cause more of the medication’s side effects;
- Type 2 diabetes—Cirrhosis causes resistance to insulin and type 2 diabetes develops as excess glucose builds up in the bloodstream;
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH ALOCOHOL ABUSE?
Alcohol abuse can cause:
- Cirrhosis of the liver;
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas);
- Liver cancer;
- Mouth cancer;
- Throat cancer;
- High blood pressure;
- Unintentional injuries such as motor-vehicle traffic crashes, falls, drowning and burns;
- Violence such as child abuse, homicide and suicide;
- Harm to a developing fetus if a woman drinks while pregnant.
MYTHS AND FACTS ABOUT ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION
Myth. When I am cold I drink alcohol to warm up.
Fact: Actually when alcohol enters the blood, it causes more blood to flow to the surface of the skin. While initially giving a feeling of warmth, the increased blood flow to the surface allows body heat to escape and the body temperature drops. Drinking alcohol in cold weather to get warm actually makes you colder.
Myth. Alcohol relaxes me.
Fact: Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and when it reaches the brain it has a depressant effect. As the alcohol is absorbed, the drinker starts to experience:
- a loss of sensation
- a decrease in sharpness of vision
- a decrease in hearing
- a loss of balance and muscle coordination
- decreased pulse rate and blood pressure
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and when it reaches the brain it has a depressant effect. Instead of relaxation, what is actually happening is, for example, a loss of sensation, a decrease in sharpness of vision, hearing, balance and muscle coordination. As more alcohol is consumed, pulse rates and blood pressure decrease. This is why a drinker may lose consciousness, slip into a coma or even die.
Myth. As long as I don’t drink more than a couple of drinks, I will not have any problems driving.
Fact. Although the legal BAC in most states is now 0.08%, for most people a BAC of 0.01 will cause slower reactions, impaired judgment and trouble doing things like signing their names.
Myth. If I drink six beers in two hours, my BAC will still be less than 0.08% and I can safely drive.
Fact. 170 pound man who drinks six beers in two hours will be about 0.10% which is over the legal BAC limit in most states.
Myth. If I drink too much, I can just sleep it off.
Fact. This depends on the BAC. If the BAC is even up to .30%, most people will just fall asleep and while they may suffer the effects of the alcohol for some hours after they awaken (a hangover), if the BAC increases over .30% then blacking out, comas and even death are possible. When the BAC increases over .50%, breathing can stop, the heart can stop a coma will commence and death is probable.
Sometimes with all the ravages of prescription drugs and “legal” drug dealing by the drug companies and unscrupulous doctors, we forget about another dangerous drug—alcohol.
At Novus Medical Detox Center we help people who have become addicted to alcohol safely detox from alcohol. Educating them is a vital part of our protocol. Please share this information with your children and with any friends that may have “drinking” problems.
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