Alcohol is, by far, the most widely used drug in our society. Because it is easily available, most people never think of it as a drug and if it is consumed to excess it can have a very damaging effect on the human body.
When ingested, alcohol passes from the stomach into the small intestine, where it is rapidly absorbed into the blood and distributed throughout the body. Because it is distributed so quickly and thoroughly, alcohol can affect the central nervous system even in small concentrations. In low concentrations, alcohol reduces inhibitions. As blood alcohol concentration increases, a person’s response to stimuli decreases markedly, speech becomes slurred, and he or she becomes unsteady and has trouble walking. With very high concentrations — greater than 0.35 grams/100 milliliters of blood (equivalent to less than .012 ounces per 3.5 ounces of blood) — a person can become comatose and die.
If you’re trying to watch your waistline, drinking too much alcohol can be disastrous! Research reveals that a man drinking five pints a week consumes the same number of calories as someone getting through 221 doughnuts a year.
Drinking too much alcohol isn’t great news for your skin either. As well as causing bloating and dark circles under your eyes, alcohol dries out your skin and can lead to wrinkles and premature aging. If you drink heavily you may develop acne rosacea, a skin disorder that starts with a tendency to blush and flush easily and can progress to facial disfiguration, a condition known as rhinophyma.
The liver is responsible for the elimination — through metabolism — of 95 percent of ingested alcohol from the body. The remainder of the alcohol is eliminated through excretion of alcohol in breath, urine, sweat, feces, milk and saliva. The body uses several different metabolic pathways in its oxidation of alcohol to acetaldehyde to acetic acid to carbon dioxide and water.
Healthy people metabolize alcohol at a fairly consistent rate. As a rule of thumb, a person will eliminate one average drink or .5 oz. (15 ml) of alcohol per hour. Several factors influence this rate. The rate of elimination tends to be higher when the blood alcohol concentration in the body is very high. Also, chronic alcoholics may (depending on liver health) metabolize alcohol at a significantly higher rate than the average. Finally, the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol quickly tends to diminish with age.
The body metabolizes alcohol extremely quickly. Unlike foods, which require time for digestion, alcohol needs no digestion and is quickly absorbed. Alcohol gets the “VIP” treatment in the body!
Food, taken along with alcohol, results in a lower, delayed blood alcohol concentration peak (the point of greatest intoxication). There are two major factors involved in this phenomenon:
First, because alcohol is absorbed most efficiently in the small intestine, the ingestion of food can slow down the absorption of alcohol into one’s system. The pyloric valve at the bottom of the stomach will close in order to hold food in the stomach for digestion and thus keep the alcohol from reaching the small intestine. While alcohol will be absorbed from the stomach it is a slower and less efficient transition.
Second and equally important is the fact that alcohol elimination rates are inversely proportional to alcohol concentration in the blood. Therefore the suppressed levels of alcohol due to food ingestion cause the body to eliminate the alcohol that is absorbed at a faster rate.
Once swallowed, a drink enters the stomach and small intestine, where small blood vessels carry it to the bloodstream. Approximately 20 percent of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and most of the remaining 80 percent is absorbed through the small intestine.
The type of food ingested (carbohydrate, fat, protein) has not been shown to have a measurable influence on this affect; but the larger the meal and closer in time between eating and drinking, the greater the diminution of peak alcohol concentration.
Though alcohol affects every organ of the body, it’s most dramatic impact is upon the liver. The liver cells normally prefer fatty acids as fuel, and package excess fatty acids as triglycerides, which they then route to other tissues of the body. However, when alcohol is present, the liver cells are forced to first metabolize the alcohol, letting the fatty acids accumulate, sometimes in huge amounts. Alcohol metabolism permanently changes liver cell structure, which impairs the liver’s ability to metabolize fats. This explains why heavy drinkers tend to develop fatty livers.
The liver is able to metabolize about ½ ounce of ethanol per hour (approximately one drink, depending on a person’s body size, food intake, etc.). If more alcohol arrives in the liver than the enzymes can handle, the excess alcohol travels to all parts of the body, circulating until the liver enzymes are finally able to process it. (Another good reason not to consume more than one drink per hour.)
With moderate drinking, the liver can process alcohol fairly safely. However, heavy drinking overtaxes the liver resulting in serious consequences. A liver clogged with fat causes liver cells to become less efficient at performing their necessary tasks, resulting in impairment of a person’s nutritional health. Fatty liver is the first stage of liver deterioration in heavy drinkers and interferes with the distribution of oxygen and nutrients to the liver’s cells. If the condition persists long enough, the liver cells will die, forming fibrous scar tissue (the second stage of liver deterioration, or fibrosis). Some liver cells can regenerate with good nutrition and abstinence, however in the last stage of deterioration, or cirrhosis, the damage to the liver cells is the least reversible.
Because of several physiological reasons, a woman will feel the effects of alcohol more than a man, even if they are the same size. There is also increasing evidence that women are more susceptible to alcohol’s damaging effects than are men. Below are explanations of why men and women process alcohol differently.
Women have less body water (52 percent for the average woman v. 61 percent for the average man). This means that a man’s body will automatically dilute the alcohol more than a woman’s body, even if the two people weigh the same amount. Women have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol. So a woman’s body will break down alcohol more slowly than a man’s.
Premenstrual hormonal changes cause intoxication to set in faster during the days right before a woman gets her period. Birth control pills or other medication with estrogen will slow down the rate at which alcohol is eliminated from the body.
Women who are heavy drinkers are at greater risk of liver disease, damage to the pancreas and high blood pressure than male heavy drinkers. Proportionately more alcoholic women die from cirrhosis than do alcoholic men.
One final note: There is much publicity these days about the therapeutic effect of a daily glass of red wine. This is due to the presence of the plant pigments called “anthrocyanadin,” which are very effective antioxidants in the body. (Scavengers of free-radicals). They are what gives red wine its color. Antioxidants protect cells from damage and aging.
We can get these anthrocyanadins in our diet in much higher quantities by eating red colored fruit and vegetables, which do not have any of the negative effects of alcohol. All red, orange, yellow and green fruits and vegetables also contain other essential nutrients not contained in alcohol.
This one’s for you, Doc!
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Readers should always consult their healthcare providers to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.
Glenn Ellis is a health advocacy communications specialist. He is the author of “Which Doctor?”, and a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures; he is also an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics.
His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine,” was released in January 2012. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.