Humans have long had a complicated relationship with alcohol. It’s been a part of our social fabric for over 9,000 years, and an increasing number of us rely heavily upon its influence. It’s even commonly claimed that certain alcoholic drinks, especially red wine, boast health benefits.
Dry January will naturally lead to a great many of us reassessing our relationship with alcohol. It can sometimes be tough to really understand the inherent risks of consumption, especially if we’re not habitual binge-drinkers.
Understanding the impact of alcohol on the body is key. You can use this information to make a judgment call on when enough is enough – and whether you’re happy to continue with your current alcohol intake, or you’d prefer to cut down a little.
The thrill of drinking alcohol stems from the rewards that it provides the brain. Even this initial ‘buzz’ inspired by drinking alcohol comes with certain dangers, though.
Alcohol eventually leads to narcosis – a complete breakdown of brain activity through drug intake. Now, we’re not saying that a glass of wine with dinner leaves you with one foot in the grave. It takes significant alcohol intake to render a healthy adult unconscious, and more still to cause death.
However, this very mild narcosis is what makes alcohol so appealing. After a few units of alcohol, the brain is flooded with dopamine and endorphins. These are pleasure stimulants. The brain encourages us to drink more, because it’s feeling increasingly euphoric. This is where narcosis comes into play.
Certain parts of the brain are temporarily numbed and shut down by alcohol. These are typically the elements of the brain concerned with anxiety and self-doubt. Therefore, a couple of drinks leaves us convinced that everything we have to say is fascinating, and that we owe it to the world to share our astounding singing voice.
While this happening to the brain, however, alcohol is also impacting our body. Most notably, our internal organs. Have you ever felt a warm feeling spread through your body when you drink, as though your heart is swelling? That will be the alcohol flowing throughout your body, like organic central heating.
First, alcohol will widen the blood vessels. This means that blood flows throughout the entire body with little resistance. This explains why we start to feel a little light-headed with even minimal alcohol intake This is also what causes the flushed cheeks so commonly associated with alcohol consumption.
Just be aware that while this happening, our blood pressure is also increasing. Wider blood vessels and airways means that the heart is pumping faster and faster, ensuring that we enjoy sufficient blood flow. Eventually, this will take its toll on the heart. Yes, even if we drink red wine.
As the alcohol works through our body, it also has a few side effects. A very notable one, aside from an increased dulling of the senses, takes place in the pituitary gland.
Located at the base of the brain, the pituitary gland releases a hormone called vasopressin to restrict urine production. Vasopressin is the reason that we do not need to urinate every time we consume liquid.
When we drink alcohol, vasopressin release temporarily ceases. Therefore, we need to use the bathroom near-constantly while drinking. This, in turn, leaves the body dehydrated. Ultimately, we are expelling much more fluid than we are taking in. That’s why it is always advisable to alternate alcoholic drinks with ‘water rounds.’
The human body recognises alcohol as something that does not belong. Being a finely tuned piece of organic machinery, this means the body will filter the alcohol out. This is done by the liver.
The liver produces enzymes that break down ethanol – the largest compound found in alcohol – into smaller molecules. These are known as ethanal. Check the spelling – it looks identical, but there is a small but critical difference. This ethanal is then broken down further into ethanoic acid, and then finally carbon dioxide.
The human liver can only work so fast. It takes the liver about an hour to break down around one unit of alcohol. The average pint of beer contains two or three units, as does a glass of wine. This means that the liver cannot break down the alcohol at the same rate that we consume it.
This is why we progressively feel more and more drunk as a night wears on. If you’re unlucky, you may even start to feel nauseous. This is compliments of the area postrema, a part of the brain that monitors blood-alcohol levels.
If blood-alcohol levels are dangerously high, the area postrema sends an urgent warning message to the body. This is the same process as when we have food poisoning. The body is told that it has a foreign invader, which must be purged at once. This results in vomiting, as the body purges itself of the problem.
As sure as night follows day, a hangover follows a night of heavy drinking. This is due in large part to dehydration. As explained, we spend a night of drinking purging our bodies of fluid through urination and not replacing it adequately. As a result, we wake up dehydrated. This explains the inevitable pounding headache, groggy brain and sensitivity to external stimulus such as light or noise. Drinking water before bed can do some way to resolving this problem.
Naturally, prevention is better than cure though – especially as there is no such thing as a hangover cure! We simply will not feel better until our body has purged the last of the alcohol from your system.
By monitoring our intake, and replacing fluid, we can give our body a fighting chance of coming out of a night of partying unscathed. Just remember how hard our organs are working next time you order a drink at the bar. Alcohol can be a great social lubricant, but it also puts the human body through a great deal of stress.
If you are concerned about your intake and what it is doing to your body or just need some expert advice, contact alldayDr via our website or download the app on android or IOS and book yourself a GP consultation today.