How The Body Processes Alcohol
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Alcohol is classified as a depressant because it slows down the central nervous system, causing a decrease in motor coordination, reaction time and intellectual performance. At high doses, the respiratory system slows down drastically and can cause a coma or death.
It is particularly dangerous to mix alcohol with other depressants, such as GHB, Rohypnol, Ketamine, tranquilizers or sleeping pills. Combining depressants multiplies the effects of both drugs and can lead to memory loss, coma or death.
Once swallowed, a drink enters the stomach and small intestine, where small blood vessels carry it to the bloodstream. Approximately 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and most of the remaining 80% is absorbed through the small intestine.Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, where enzymes break down the alcohol. Understanding the rate of metabolism is critical to understanding the effects of alcohol. In general, the liver can process one ounce of liquor (or one standard drink) in one hour. If you consume more than this, your system becomes saturated, and the additional alcohol will accumulate in the blood and body tissues until it can be metabolized. This is why having a lot of shots or playing drinking games can result in high blood alcohol concentrations that last for several hours.
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.
Ability to dilute alcohol
Women have less body water (52% for the average woman v. 61% 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.
Ability to metabolize alcohol
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 are more susceptible to long-term alcohol-induced damage.
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.
Having food in your stomach can have a big influence on the absorption of alcohol. The food will dilute the alcohol and slow the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine, where alcohol is very rapidly absorbed. Peak BAC could be as much as 3 times higher in someone with an empty stomach than in someone who has eaten a meal before drinking. Eating regular meals and having snacks while drinking will keep you from getting too drunk too quickly.
Some people of Asian descent have more difficulty metabolizing alcohol. They may experience facial flushing, nausea, headache, dizziness and rapid heartbeat. It appears that one of the liver enzymes that is needed to process alcohol is not active in these individuals. It is estimated that up to 50% of Asians are susceptible to these reactions to alcohol.
Research studies have found that children of alcoholics are four times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems. However, many people with a family history of alcoholism do not become alcoholics. Additional factors that increase the risk of developing alcoholism include having an alcoholic parent who is depressed or has other psychological problems, growing up in a family where both parents abuse alcohol or other drugs, having a parent with severe alcohol abuse problems and living in a family where conflicts lead to aggression and violence.
"Blackouts" (sometimes referred to as alcohol-related memory loss or "alcoholic amnesia") occur when people have no memory of what happened while intoxicated. During a blackout, someone may appear fine to others; however, the next day s/he cannot remember parts of the night and what s/he did. The cause of blackouts is not well understood but may involve the interference of short-term memory storage, deep seizures, or in some cases, psychological depression.
Blackouts shouldn't be confused with "passing out," which happens when people lose consciousness from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Losing consciousness means that the person has reached a very dangerous level of intoxication; they could aspirate on their vomit or slip into a coma. If someone has passed out, call EMS immediately (401.863-4111). S/he needs immediate medical attention.
Hangovers are the body's reaction to poisoning and withdrawal from alcohol. Hangovers begin 8 to 12 hours after the last drink and symptoms include fatigue, depression, headache, thirst, nausea, and vomiting. The severity of symptoms varies according to the individual and the quantity of alcohol consumed.
People have tried many different things to relieve the effects of "the morning after," and there are a lot of myths about what to do to prevent or alleviate a hangover. The only way to prevent a hangover is to drink in moderation:
- Eat a good dinner and continue to snack throughout the night.
- Start out slowly to see how the alcohol is affecting you.
- Avoid drinking games or shots. Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time is the most likely way to become dangerously intoxicated.
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