While most of us consume alcohol on a regular basis, we don’t fully understand the effects that it has on our bodies and minds. Individuals across the globe participate in this common ritual of alcohol consumption; whether it be on a daily basis or only once in a while, alcohol plays a role in most of our lives. The long term and short term effects on our body have been studied in great depth; so why are people still so unaware of the many negative effects of alcohol? It is very important that people start listening to their bodies and protect them so that they can live a healthy, moderate lifestyle in order to live a longer, quality filled life.
The Processing of Alcohol
To understand the effect of alcohol on the body, you must first understand how the body processes alcohol. The consumption of alcohol can mean anything from beer, to liquor, to wine, and anything in-between. Each substance requires a different volume to be considered “one drink.” A lot of other factors can control the rate at which alcohol as metabolized as well including: volume, rate of consumption, age, tolerance, gender, heritage, family medical history, and general health.
The body takes about one hour to process each drink. It also originally takes about an hour for the drink to enter your system. One the alcohol enters your body it first makes its way to the stomach. About 20 percent of the alcohol is absorbed by the stomach. The remaining 80 percent makes its way through the walls of the stomach and onto the small intestine where it is absorbed. From the small intestine, it makes its way through a large blood vessel to your liver. The liver uses an enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) to convert alcohol to acetaldehyde. The acetaldehyde is further converted to acetic acid. After this, the acetic acid metabolizes to carbon dioxide, water, and fatty acids.
Alcohol that is unable to be metabolized, due to the livers inability to handle more than one drink an hour, proceeds to the heart. The heart muscles will temporarily slow which is what gives the sluggish, slow feeling that can accompany alcohol. The heart can than distribute the alcohol to other organs such as the lungs by means of the pulmonary vein. This is why you are able to smell alcohol on your breath. The oxygenated blood will then return to the heart via the pulmonary artery and up and out through the aorta. Because alcohol makes blood vessels expand your appearance can become slightly pink or warm due to the warm blood flowing up to the surface of the skin.
One of the most dangerous stops that alcohol makes in its circulation around the body is the brain. The same reason the heart slows is what makes your brain fuzzy and less coherent as well. Alcohol is a depressant or sedative which means it slows the transmission of impulses between nerve cells. Why is this so important? Your brain controls your body’s ability to make decisions, move, and speak. All of this is hindered under the influence of alcohol. This process can be affected differently when dealing with binge drinking, heavy drinking, casual drinking, or any other type.
Effects of Alcohol on the Body
Most of us are aware of the short term effects of alcohol on the body. These are the obvious slurring of speech, drowsiness (though the sleep is low quality), lowering of body temperature, and increased emotional sensitivity. If enough alcohol is consumed, the effects can worsen. Most people have experienced nausea and vomiting from alcohol either during or after a hangover sets it. Other symptoms of hangovers include headache, dehydration, loss of appetite, dizziness, fatigue, and sweating.
If enough alcohol is consumed, then alcohol poisoning becomes a real threat that can result in injury, coma or death. This has recently become a big issue in Greek life on college campuses. Fraternities that haze newcomers require them to drink massive amounts of alcohol in short periods of time. This is an extremely dangerous act; not only because heavy drinking can injure and hurt anyone, but because college freshman have little to no experience with drinking. They have no tolerance or knowledge about the consumption of alcohol and end up drinking way more than they can handle. In a few cases around the country this has led to the death of young individuals with bright futures like Tim Piazza from Pennsylvania State University.
Long term drinking takes a great toll on your organs; most obviously your liver. Cirrhosis, which can require a liver transplant to treat, is a result of constant damage to your liver from alcohol consumption. Your liver is not the only organ that can be affected from long term alcohol use. Over longer periods of time you can develop pancreatitis. This is cause by alarming inflammation to the pancreas. If untreated, it can cause severe nerve damage.
One of the less obvious long term effects on the body is the development of tolerance. To some people tolerance may seem like an accomplishment. The issue, however, is that it is a double edged sword. To get to the point of tolerance requires mass drinking. Once you have it, your body is less able to give you signs to slow down. You are able to drink more while feeling less affects. This may seem ok at the time but your body still processes alcohol the same way and is still going to affect your insides the same. Also with the consumption of more and more alcohol, dependency becomes a very real, likely possibility.
Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
While the consumption of alcohol can lead to many physical effects, the mental effects can be even more dangerous. Depending on how much alcohol is consumed, your brain can suffer from minor, short term effects. One such effect is “blacking out.” This is a common term referring to the inability to remember events that occurred while intoxicated. If you consume enough alcohol you may lose your memory from the night before.
Why is this so dangerous? It can lead to much worse consequences than just the loss of your memory. Even “browning out,” or partial loss of memory can affect your decision making ability. Some bad decisions may seem harmless such as drinking more than you originally planned or getting sick somewhere other than a toilet. These decisions are minor and tend to leave most parties involved unscathed.
The true danger comes from the more weighted decisions that we have to make while intoxicated, such as driving while under the influence. Not only are we putting ourselves in danger but we are endangering those in the car with us and every other pedestrian or driver on the road. This is one of the worst things you can do for yourself and others. Drunk driving isn’t the only form of bad decision making. Without the ability to make good decisions, we lose control over protection of our own bodies. This can lead to unplanned pregnancies and STD’s. Overall drinking seriously deteriorates our mind even short term.
If the effects of drinking short term are so significant, what happens to our minds over longer periods of time? After the brain has prolonged exposure to alcohol, it can start to damage or change. This is influenced by other issues around the body. The NIAAA states that 80 percent of alcohol dependent individuals suffer from nutrient deficits through not getting enough thiamine or vitamin B1. These are necessary to keep a healthy brain.
What real problems can arise from this? Long-term alcohol use can put you at risk for developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a neurological disorder. Short term (Wernicke’s encephalopathy) can cause mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes or oculomotor disturbances, and difficulty with muscle coordination. Between 80 and 90 percent of Wernicke’s encephalopathy patients develop the long term Korsakoff’s psychosis. This creates issues with learning and memory. It can become so severe that they can forget something as recent as an hour later. If not treated immediately, Korsakoff’s psychosis can lead to coma or death.
The long term effects of alcohol use can affect just more than you. During pregnancy if the fetus experiences enough exposure to alcohol, it can develop Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). This can harm the fetus’s ability to develop physically and psychologically. The issues that arise from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can debilitate the child’s cognitive and behavioral growth later in life.
How Your Drinking Affects Others
Drinking may be a personal choice; however, it affects everyone who surrounds you as well. Family, friends and strangers can all be influenced by your intoxication. If you do not think before you act, then you can negatively impact someone’s life without meaning to. As previously mentioned one of the most obvious and severe of all impacts, is that of drunk driving. When you think of alcohols effects on the body you tend to only think personal.
Drunk driving can easily take someone’s life other than your own. You may not mean to, but in the year 2015, 10,265 people who were killed in drunk driving crashes involving a driver with an illegal BAC. Death is of course the worst case scenario. A lot of crashes that involve drunk drivers result in life changing injuries. These injuries may affect a person’s career, relationships, and even daily routine forever. You are taking fate into your own hands by getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.
Another way that drinking affects others is through the violent tendencies that accompany it. Fights are a very common occurrence while intoxicated. Whether it be on the street, at a bar, or in your own home, violence can easily be sparked by someone who is not in their right mind. Violence can lead your body and mind down a bad path that could affect the rest of your life. Not surprisingly, 40% of prisoners convicted of violent crimes committed these acts under the influence of alcohol.
The physical threat of drinking is very evident. What tends to be forgotten is the negative impact of the mental health of friends and family members. Sleep is an important took in staying healthy. If you have a friend or family member that is keeping you up at night due to their drinking, it will take a toll on your mental and physical wellbeing. It could cause you to miss work or social gatherings due to lack of sleep. It is also hard to watch someone you care about struggling with the effects of alcohol use and deterioration of their body and mind. This can create anxiety, depression, and other feelings of helplessness.
While drinking may be a part of our lives, we don’t have to consume alcohol at such an alarming rate. To know the effects will hopefully deter you from drinking as much. There is no reason to not occasionally enjoy a glass of wine or a beer after a long day; however, the drinking culture has become an extreme that needs to be lessened to a more moderate experience. Moderation is the key to life. As long as awareness and moderation guide you, you will lead a happy, healthy life.