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Biology 103
2001 First Web Report
On Serendip

The Effects of Alcohol on the Body

Jackie Chew

Spending a Saturday night at an on-campus party will nearly guarantee that you will see some... or many... people rowdily stumbling around, having difficulty forming the words to express their claims that the room is, in fact, spinning. You simply excuse their behavior, assuming they've just had "a little too much to drink." So what, exactly, is it about these "drinks" that causes people to act this way? It is a little more complicated, and possibly more dangerous than many are aware.

From the moment the first drop of alcohol hits your lips, your body is being affected. When the alcohol comes in contact with the lining of your mouth, a small percentage is absorbed. It irritates the mouth lining as well as the esophagus, acting as an anesthetic. Then, the remaining alcohol travels to your stomach, where some is absorbed into the bloodstream. (5) Only a small portion, approximately 20% is absorbed through the stomach. Most of the remaining alcohol will continue into the small intestine. It is from the small intestine that the majority of the consumed alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream. From here, the alcohol can reach every cell of the body. (4)

Because alcohol shares many properties with water, alcohol is highly soluble in water, and thus it travels throughout the body as water does. Alcohol can pass through cell walls and is distributed throughout the water content of tissues and cells. In its circulation through the body, the alcohol reaches the brain. (5) This is when the consumer begins to feel the effects of intoxication. The severity and longevity of these effects are dependent on the concentration of alcohol in the blood. A factor that affects the concentration of alcohol in the blood is the rate at which the alcohol reaches the small intestine. This rate is dependent on the strength of the alcohol, as well as whether or not there was food in the stomach. If the stomach is empty, the alcohol can reach the small intestine in less than five minutes. (1)

The body can expel approximately 10% of the alcohol by means of perspiration, and by elimination from the lungs and kidneys. This leaves 90% to be metabolized by the liver. Once metabolized by the liver, the alcohol combines with oxygen, forming energy, therefore oxidizing. (5) Upon entrance into the liver, a portion of the alcohol is changed into acetaldehyde. This is accomplished by the enzyme, dehydrogenase. Then, the acetaldehyde is broken down into acetic acid, which circulates throughout the body, combing with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water. The catch is, however, that the liver can only oxidize a given amount of alcohol at a time. (1) Generally, the liver has the ability to metabolize only .25 ounce of pure alcohol per hour, leaving the remaining alcohol to continue its circulation throughout the body. (5)

As the alcohol that is not being metabolized continues to be dispersed, the brain experiences various impairments. Alcohol's effect on the brain is abnormal, as the brain is usually protected from chemicals and drugs by the "blood/brain barrier," which acts as a filter system. Normally, it allows only water to pass through. However, the simple molecular structure of alcohol allows it to penetrate the barrier. (5) Occurring in the Frontal Lobe, there is a loss of reason, caution, and inhibitions. From this originates the cocky, careless, behavior of drunk people. The Parietal Lobe is where the loss of fine motor skills occurs, in addition to slower reaction time and shaking. This inability to react and loss of balance in combination with the prior mentioned loss of caution and reason can be very dangerous. In the Temporal Lobe originates the slurred speech that is a defining characteristic of an intoxicated person, as well as impaired hearing. An affected Occipital Lobe is responsible for blurred vision and poor distance judgment, and when the Brain Stem is affect, there is the loss of vital functions. (1) Thus it is shown that alcohol can have severe neurological effects.

Alcohol depresses the functioning of the body's cells and organs, making them less efficient. Alcohol's effect on the brain is dangerous, as the brain is responsible for coordinating critical body functions such as the senses, perception, speech, and judgment. (6) Socially, drinking is dangerous in that emotions are more freely expressed when one is intoxicated. This is because the part of the brain that allows us to control our actions and behavior is relaxed. There is a loss of self-restraint.

When intoxicated, it is common to feel warm. This is because alcohol acts as a vasodilator, dilating surface blood vessels. However, the feeling of warmth is misleading, because the expanded blood vessels actually cause you to lose body heat. (1)

At different levels of intoxication, alcohol has different effects. Many drink alcohol to enjoy the relaxed, euphoric sensation. However, at higher levels of intoxication, the stimulating effects of alcohol begin to fade. At high levels, alcohol is an anesthetic that acts as a depressant on the central nervous system. Alcohol can decrease heart rate, and lower blood pressure and respiration rate to dangerous levels. When this begins, the drinker begins to feel tired. If enough alcohol is consumed, the drinker will fall asleep, or in extreme cases, the drinker may lapse into a coma. (2)

In addition to the effects that alcohol has on your body from just one night of drinking, there are serious long-term effects for heavy drinkers. Due to the irritant action of alcohol, high consumption increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, tongues, and esophagus. There is also the risk of liver diseases such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. Heavy drinkers are also at risk for coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. (3) For those who drink only occasionally, the body is able to adjust to the depressant effects of alcohol. However, frequent alcohol consumption does not allow the body to maintain its equilibrium. The liver has limited ability to metabolize toxic substances. (4)

Indubitably, alcohol severely affects the body. Aristotle once said, "Drunkenness is one's own inhibition, whether sacred or unsacred, just or unjust." However, regardless of whether it is a sip of beer, or a shot of tequila, alcohol takes a powerful and detrimental toll on the body. The gravity of alcohol is highly overlooked, which is why it is the most dominating drug on the market, especially in the "party" scene. Nevertheless, alcohol's effects on the body are numerous, therefore making it not only convoluted, but perilous as well.

WWW Sources

1) The Effects of Alcohol

2) Indiana University Research

3) The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information

4) Inner Learning Online

5) Seven Levels of Energy Consciousness

6) Psychological Assessment Research Treatment Services

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