The Alcohol Pathway
Alcohol is a mood altering depressant drug that can reach every cell in your body. When alcohol is swallowed it is not digested like food; instead, a small amount is immediately absorbed directly into your blood stream by the lining of your mouth and stomach. The rest of the alcohol is rapidly absorbed in the small intestine. Within 90 seconds (a healthy circulation rate) it will affect all the organs and systems in your body, crossing even the blood-brain barrier, which normally keeps harmful substances away from the brain.
Your body tries immediately to metabolize (break down) the alcohol into non-harmful substances (water, carbon dioxide and energy). Ten percent of the alcohol is eliminated through sweat, breathing and urine. Enzymes in you stomach and liver must detoxify the rest. This happens at a constant rate of one-half ounce per hour (about half a standard drink). Nothing with increase this rate and not all people can detoxify that much alcohol in an hour. When the rate of alcohol consumption exceeds the rate of detoxification, the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream continues to build, with increasingly detrimental effects. Vomiting and loss of consciousness, the body’s last defenses against an alcohol overdose, may occur prior to severe impairment of the brain. However, if alcohol is consumed in large quantities and quickly (drinking games and multiple shots) these life saving mechanisms cannot stop the blood alcohol levels from climbing and death can occur from acute alcohol poisoning
How alcohol affects you will depend on how much is in your bloodstream- you blood alcohol concentration (BAC). The BAC determines how much intoxication (depression of your nervous system) will occur.
Many factors affect your rate of intoxication, including:
The amount and speed of consumption- if alcohol is consumed slowly, it allows the body to metabolize it and limit accumulation in the bloodstream.
A full or empty stomach- food, water and fruit juice dilute alcohol and will help to slow down its absorption into the bloodstream (by up to 50%). Carbonation works to speed absorption
Body weight and composition- the body is 60% water and as fat holds less water than muscle, those who are leaner and heavier have a higher water content to dilute the alcohol, so the effects of alcohol are less pronounced than in a lighter person who drinks the same amount or those with a greater percentage of body weight.
Gender- women absorb about a third more alcohol into their blood stream than men as they have less of the metabolizing enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase.
Setting, mood or atmosphere- what you expect, the setting or location, your mental state and other drugs being used, can also alter alcohol’s effects. If you are tired, upset, depressed, excited inexperienced you are more susceptible. Many people become intoxicated on less alcohol merely because that have that expectation before they begin drinking.
Age- as people get older they are affected more by alcohol
Tolerance- the bodies of experienced drinkers have adapted to alcohol being present in their systems, so it may take longer and more alcohol to feel impaired. In severe cases of repeated alcohol consumption, where brain or liver damage have occurred, the person may become very sensitive to alcohol.
Short-Term Effects- Alcohol increases stomach secretions, which could cause heartburn. Kidneys increase urinary output, contributing to dehydration and a hangover. Blood vessels dilate in the skin causing loss of body heat despite a feeling of warmth, which could be dangerous in situations of extreme cold. In a study involving non-alcoholic volunteers, acute intake of even small amounts of alcohol (1-2 oz.) led to accumulations of fat in liver cells. Alcohol may increase sexual desire but decreases sexual performance by inhibiting the physical responses of the sexual organs.
Moderate and occasional use of alcohol in a healthy person is likely to cause health problems. The possible benefits of alcohol consumption have also been studied. One or two drinks a day has been shown to have a protective effect against heart disease, at least in men over the age of 40 year and postmenopausal women. Because heavy drinking is harmful to health and can lead to violence and accidents, encouraging alcohol consumption seems like a poor preventative health measure. Safer alternatives include eating sensibly, exercising regularly, and quitting smoking. The harmful physical and psychological effects of long-term excessive use are many and can be fatal. Women are more susceptible to these effects than men. They can result from the direct toxic effects of alcohol or be secondary to the lack of nutrition, use of other drugs, and other lifestyle factors.
The effects of long-term alcohol use on the various organs and tissues of the body depend on the amount of alcohol consumed and the number of years excess drinking has occurred. Diet and health care also have an effect. People vary greatly in how much alcohol they can tolerate before physical damage occurs.
Alcohol is a carbohydrate with non-nutritional calories that quickly add up. It has so little in the way of nutrition and vitamins that it could never replace food in the human diet. When you abuse alcohol, you tend to be undernourished- making you hair dry, giving you cracked lips, aggravating acne, making your eyes look glassy, and giving you skin a puffy, broken vein look. According to researchers, more than one or two drinks a week promotes aging.
Research finding show youth who drink can have a significant reduction in learning and memory. The brain goes through dynamic change during adolescence, and alcohol can seriously damage long and short-term growth processes. Frontal lobe development and the refinement of pathways and connections continue until age 16, and a high rate of energy is used as the brain matures until age 20. Damage from alcohol at this time can be long-term and irreversible. In addition, short-term or moderate drinking impairs learning and memory far more in youth than adults. Adolescents only need half as much alcohol as adults to suffer from the same negative effects. Alcohol abuse can also seriously disrupt sleep and cause movement disorders, damage to peripheral nerves and an increased risk of serious complications following head injury.
Gastrointestinal Tract and Digestive System
Serious disease of the liver and pancreas, and damage to the stomach and intestines can result from excessive use of alcohol. Chronic alcohol abuse is the single most frequent cause of illness and death from liver cells from functioning (detoxifying blood). Eventually scar tissue can develop and cirrhosis- an irreversible and fatal condition whereby liver tissue degenerates and dies. A severe bout of heavy drinking (alcoholic hepatitis) can also cause the death of liver cells. Pancreatic disease and the onset of diabetes may occur. Alcohol’s irritation of the stomach, increases acidity; this excess acid burns through the protective mucous lining causing ulcers on the stomach and intestinal walls. Bleeding from the stomach, from enlarged veins around the esophagus, diarrhea and malabsorbtion of food can all occur in heavy drinkers.
Alcohol is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat rhythms, deterioration of the heart muscle and heart disease. Anemia is common in people who abuse alcohol
Reproductive system, and other Hormonal and Metabolic Effects.
In men, chronic ingestion of excess alcohol may lead to impotence, sterility, atrophy of the testes, and enlargement of the breasts. Early menopause and menstrual irregularities are common in women who drink excessively. Excess output of hormones from the adrenal gland can occur and low levels of sex hormones can lead to premature bone less (osteoporosis). Acute alcohol abuse can cause low blood sugar, which is of particular concern for diabetic patients. Ketoacidosis, a condition where the blood in the body becomes too acidic, can also be caused by excess alcohol use.
Immune System and Cancer-producing Effects
Depression of the immune system by chronic alcohol abuse results in predisposition to infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, and cancer. In addition, increased risk of infection could occur if loss of judgement and inhibitions during intoxication resulted in unsafe sexual practices and in drug users sharing needles.
Cancer of the throat, voice box (larynx), mouth and esophagus, and liver are most frequently associated with excessive use of alcohol. Less conclusive evidence of increased cancer exists for the stomach, large bowel, pancreas, lung, urinary tract and breast.