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Alcohol and's all about cells!

By Stephen C. Schultz

I find it interesting that when families, workplaces and communities discuss the dangers of alcohol, it seems that drunk driving and binge drinking get all of the attention.

The abuse of alcohol has prompted some high profile stories that have circulated throughout the media lately. Alcohol is the most widely used addictive substance in the United States. It is estimated that 17.6 million people suffer from substance abuse or dependence issues related to alcohol. Half of all adults have a family member who has struggled with alcohol dependence. It should be noted that over 7 million children in the U.S. alone live in a household where one parent is an alcoholic. It was recently reported that alcohol kills more people each year than AIDS, Tuberculosis and violence. Alcohol accounts for 4% of deaths world wide according to the World Health Organization.

We've all witnessed someone who has had too much to drink. It seems to be a right of passage in high school and college. Sometimes when someone is wasted, it can be mildly entertaining, especially when the person is not an "angry drunk". But, what is going on physiologically when someone ingests alcohol into their body. It may not be as harmless as it looks to the casual observer. Alcohol literally affects all aspects of a persons life.

Alcohol as a substance is not moral or immoral in regard to how it affects the human body. It does not choose to affect one person one way and another person in a different way. Alcohol is no respecter of persons...alcohol simply "is".

So, what is alcohol? The alcohol that is found in alcoholic beverages is Ethyl Alcohol or shortened it's called Ethanol. It is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars and starches.

A standard alcoholic drink will have about 14 grams (0.6-ounces) of pure alcohol. Different brands and types of beverages will contain that same 0.6-ounces in various volumes. For example; that 0.6-ounces of alcohol will be in 12-ounces of beer. That same 0.6-ounces of pure alcohol will be in 5-ounces of wine or in 1.5-ounces of Rum, Gin, Vodka or Whiskey.

What this means is that one person can drink four beers and another can drink 4 shots of whiskey and they are both consuming the same amount of pure Ethanol. The actual volume of liquid will be different, but the Ethanol consumption will be the same.

Ethanol leaves the body through urination and breathing. It is also metabolized by the liver. The kidneys eliminate 5% of Ethanol through urination. The lungs will exhale 5% of Ethanol. The liver metabolizes 90% of Ethanol at the rate of one drink (0.6-ounces) per hour. There is nothing that can speed this rate up. Coffee or other wives-tales do not work. Getting "drunk" is simply ingesting more alcohol than the 0.6-ounces per hour until symptoms of alcohol poisoning appear. (Standard behaviors associated with intoxication are simply symptoms, or the body's reaction to a foreign substance or poison.)

Once in your system, alcohol permeates every cell membrane in your body. It crosses the blood/brain barrier in your head as well as the placental barrier in pregnant women. When you smell alcohol on someones breath, it's not because it has been in their mouth. It's because the alcohol has permeated the cell membranes in their lungs and they are breathing out the alcohol molecules that have attached to the carbon dioxide. When you hear of someone having "liver disease", it happens because the alcohol has permeated the membranes in the cells of the liver. Alcohol literally turns liver cells into fatty tissue. In medical terms this is called cirrhosis of the liver.

We know that alcohol has an adverse affect on the heart, stomach, liver, pancreas, lungs, kidney’s, gall bladder etc. So, what happens when the alcohol permeates the cells of the most important organ we have?

Your brain and your spinal cord connect and work together to create your Central Nervous System. This system accounts for your ability to walk, run, feel pain, experience hand/eye coordination etc. Within this Central Nervous System is what is called the Autonomic Nervous System. This is the system that controls and monitors the bodily functions that we don’t think about; heart beat, breathing, certain reflexes etc. It’s the Autonomic System that allows us to sleep at night and not have to worry about our heart stopping.

Why is this important? Alcohol is a Central Nervous System depressant. Alcohol depresses or slows down the functions of your Central Nervous System, hence; slurred speech, slow thought process and lack of physical coordination. It is also why we hear of some people who binge drink and are dead the next morning. They simply stop breathing in their sleep.

These are a few of the physical aspects of ingesting alcohol. Later, I will discuss some of the emotional aspects of alcohol abuse and how it impacts our relationships. If you know of a teen or young adult who may need help, you can find it here.


Unknown said…
alcohol drinking among teens will never be a big problem, not a big deal at all, if they could add a sense of responsibility on what they do.
Your comment "...not a big deal at all, IF they could add a sense of responsibility..." pretty much sums it up.

While each teen is certainly an individual, collectively we know that the frontal lobe of the brain does not fully develop until 21yrs old or so.

This is where the concern lies. If you combine the physiological aspects of brain development in teens with the fact that alcohol impacts judgement at the cellular level of the brain, it provides a high risk picture of teen drinking that has nothing to do with the social values of responsibility.

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