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Why Does Alcohol Make Me Drunk and What Does That Mean?
For many of us, the consumption of alcohol was a rite of passage—it was something that we did to show that we were becoming adults. In fact, turning 21 wasn’t important because we were able to vote, but because we could legally purchase and drink alcohol.
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 know people who let alcohol ruin their lives and now can appreciate what philosopher Bertrand Russell meant when he said, “Drunkenness is temporary suicide: the happiness that it brings is merely negative, a momentary cessation of unhappiness.”
Of all the abused substances in our society, alcohol is the only one that is both legal and readily available in almost every convenience store or supermarket. When you consider the ease with which alcohol can be obtained and the potential for abuse, it is important to understand what alcohol is and how it affects you.
WHAT IS THE ALCOHOL IN ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES?
The alcohol in alcoholic beverages is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. (Ethanol is also used for fuel but that ethanol is made using a different process than the ethanol in alcoholic beverages.)
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.
The amount of alcohol in alcoholic beverages varies greatly. In beer the percentage of alcohol is normally between four to six percent and in wine it is normally between seven to fifteen percent. In distilled alcoholic beverages the percentage of alcohol is normally between 40% to 95%.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DRINK ALCOHOL?
When a person consumes an alcoholic drink, the alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and small intestine and enters the bloodstream. The rate of absorption depends on a number of factors, but it most depends on the percentage of alcohol in the drink; the higher the percentage, the faster the absorption. Since about 20% of the alcohol is being absorbed through the stomach, if there is food in the stomach this will slow down the absorption of alcohol.
Our brains have a filter system that normally allows only water to pass through. However, alcohol is very water soluble and it passes into the brain and causes many harmful effects. Depending on the amount of alcohol and numerous other individual factors, the alcohol affects each of our brains in different ways. For many, there is a lowering of reason, of caution, and of inhibitions—evidenced by the brash and often irrational actions of many drunk people. For others there is a lessening of motor skills and balance, slowed reaction times and even the “shakes”. Still others experience blurred vision. Others just get tired and go to sleep. While the noticeable effects may be different for each of us, scientists agree that alcohol is harmful to the brain.
HOW DOES THE BODY HANDLE THE ALCOHOL IN THE BLOODSTREAM?
The alcohol in the bloodstream is not actually metabolized until it reaches the liver. 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.
When the alcohol in the bloodstream enters the liver, the liver breaks down the alcohol into energy, carbon dioxide and water. The carbon dioxide is released from the body in the lungs. The water passes out of the body as breath vapor, perspiration, or urine. 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.
WHAT IS BLOOD ALCOHOL CONCENTRATION OR BAC?
BAC is the amount of alcohol in the blood. It is a percentage determined by measuring the number of milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. For example, a BAC of .8 percent, 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 from the body, or the equivalent amount of alcohol in a 12 ounce can of beer, five ounce glass of wine or a one ounce shot glass of vodka. None of us are truly average and all of us metabolize alcohol differently, either faster or slower, 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 were to drive during this time, and was stopped by a policeman and tested for BAC, they would almost certainly 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 a 100-pound person drinks six beers in an hour, their BAC would be approximately 0.210%; for a 230-pound person, that same amount of alcohol consumption would only lead to a BAC of approximately 0.083%.
WHAT IS BINGE DRINKING?
Many people consider that it’s OK to go out on the weekend and get “drunk” because it only happens “once or twice a week.” According to a study reported in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (volume 29, p. 317), binge drinking is more damaging to most people than drinking the same amount of alcohol over several days. The report also found that binge drinkers also did worse than people who drank the same quantity of alcohol but over several days in cognitive tests involving short term working memory and other cognitive tasks that were administered when both groups were sober.
What is binge drinking? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as any episode of alcohol consumption that raises the BAC to 0.08% (or 80 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 milliliters of blood) or above. Other researchers define binge drinking as simply having more than five drinks on one occasion. By any definition, binge drinking on a regular basis can be very damaging to a person’s health and quality of life.
- 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 same effects.
IS THERE AN EASY TEST TO DETERMINE IF SOMEONE HAS A DRINKING PROBLEM?
A number of people use a test called the CAGE Test. CAGE is a mnemonic (a memory aid) and asks people to recall if they have had certain thoughts during the past year. C — have you thought that you should (C) cut down on your drinking? A– Have people (A) annoyed you by remarking on or criticizing your drinking? G– Have you felt (G) guilty about your drinking? E–Have you had a drink first thing in the morning as an (E) eye-opener, to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover? If the answer is yes to at least one of the above questions, then the person likely has an alcohol problem.
WHAT IS CIRRHOSIS OF THE LIVER?
Most of us have heard that cirrhosis of the liver is a side effect of alcohol abuse, but what is cirrhosis?. The liver is the largest organ in the body. It metabolizes (breaks down into components) 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—because not enough bile is produced and sent to the gallbladder, gallstones can form;
- Accumulation of toxins in the blood or brain—toxins are not removed and 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 one or more of the medication’s often numerous uncomfortable and harmful 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.
TWO COMMON MYTHS AND THE FACTS
Myth. When I am cold I can 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 thus 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 which may lead to a loss of consciousness, a coma or even death.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN AN ALCOHOL ABUSER OR ALCOHOLIC STOPS DRINKING?
Most alcohol abusers and alcoholics at some point realize that they have to either stop or greatly reduce their drinking or their lives will be ruined or their health destroyed. However, most attempts to reduce drinking fail and “cold turkey” withdrawals can not only be very difficult but also can be very dangerous.
Most alcohol abusers and alcoholics experience what is known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Milder forms of the syndrome include tremulousness, seizures and hallucinations which typically occur within six to forty-eight hours after the last drink. Many alcohol abusers and alcoholics experience delirium tremens (DTs). The DT’s produce profound confusion, hallucinations, and severe autonomic nervous system overactivity, which sometimes results in seizures and comas and even death. These symptoms typically begin between 48 and 96 hours after the last drink.
CAN ALCOHOL ABUSERS AND ALCOHOLICS SAFELY STOP DRINKING?
Yes, but it must be done under medical supervision. At Novus, we can safely and more comfortably help people withdraw from alcohol in our stress-free environment. If you or someone you know wants to withdraw from alcohol please give us a call.
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