How Alcohol Negatively Affects the Body
Written by Lucas Kibby, CleanFleet
Most people know that drinking too much alcohol can affect us emotionally, to lose our balance or feel sick, feel hungry in the morning after or deal with the pounding headaches of a hangover. We even know that drinking too much can lead to car accidents, addictions, or even death.
But not many of us know what is actually happening inside the body to create these reactions and understand the scope of how much alcohol actually affects the body.
Alcohol actually affects nearly every system in the body, from the brain to circulation to immunity and the holiday season comes with some serious consequences. Two to three times more people die in alcohol-related car accidents during the week of Christmas and New Year’s than other comparable time periods.
During the rest of December, 28 percent of traffic-related deaths involve a drunk driver; that number jumps to 40 percent during the week of Christmas and New Year’s. Visits to the emergency room for alcohol-related illness or injuries also increase on New Year’s Day, by as much as 2 – 2.5 times.
How Alcohol Affects the Head and Brain
Brain – Chemicals called neurotransmitters communicate messages throughout the brain. Alcohol enhances the effects of one common neurotransmitter (GABA), which is used for slowing things down in the brain, thereby further slowing down messages throughout the brain.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter with the opposite effect; it gets things going in the brain. But because alcohol can block the effects of glutamate at certain receptors, messages are further slowed in the brain.
Frontal Lobe – At blood alcohol levels of around .05, this area of the brain begins to show signs of disruption. This part of the brain is involved in decision-making and impulse control, so you begin to make poorer choices and may have more trouble controlling your urges.
The more you consume alcohol, the more you suppress the frontal lobes, until you eventually lose control over your emotional expression.
Amygdala – This part of the brain warns you when you’re in danger. It makes you feel anxious and afraid when faced with a threat. With low doses of alcohol, the amygdala is slightly suppressed, so you begin to ignore the consequences of your actions (and you’re already making poorer choices because the frontal lobes are also suppressed). As you move into a more moderate dose of alcohol, you can’t recognize when you’re in danger.
Cerebellum – This part of the brain is important for memory, but is particularly involved in learning and executing patterns of movement. The more you drink, the more the cerebellum is disrupted, leading to balance problems, slower reaction time and slurred speech.
Hippocampus – As you drink more, some impairment happens to the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory. When you reach a blood alcohol level of about .15, the low end of the range considered a high dose of alcohol, you can start experiencing problems recording autobiographical memories, meaning you may not remember where you went or what you did.
With a blood alcohol level of .2 or above, some research suggests there’s a 50 percent chance of experiencing this hole in memory, commonly referred to as a blackout. And when you wake up the next morning and a friend fills in the details, it’s not often good news, thanks to the suppressed frontal lobe and amygdala.
How Alcohol Affects the Heart and Immunity System
Heart – After a couple of drinks, some may experience a rapid or irregular heartbeat. Researchers aren’t entirely sure as to why this happens, but alcohol seems to directly affect our internal timekeeper. People who don’t drink regularly are more susceptible to this kind of reaction.
Immune System – The immune system has two parts: One works to ward off sickness and the other fights off germs once they are already present. Because alcohol suppresses both, you are left not only more susceptible to illness, but also less able to fight it. This effect lingers for about 24 hours after consuming alcohol.
How Alcohol Affects the Body and Stomach
Stomach – Alcohol is broken down by two classes of enzymes. The first is more prevalent in the stomach and converts ethanol, the alcohol we drink, into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is toxic, so the second step of metabolism, which occurs in the liver, happens very quickly in most people.
Alcohol will pass more slowly through the stomach if you’ve eaten recently, allowing for more of it to be broken down before it reaches the liver, so eating before or while drinking really does slow down your buzz. Alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach, which can bring on nausea or vomiting.
Liver – The liver is responsible for breaking down most of the alcohol (now in the form of acetaldehyde) in the second stage of metabolism. Here, the second class of enzymes converts the toxic acetaldehyde into harmless acetate, which is close in chemical makeup to vinegar.
The liver can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol per hour, no matter how much you’ve actually had. So why does it seem like some people can drink more than others? This rate varies between individuals, and is also affected by gender and how much you’ve had to eat that day. When this happens, acetaldehyde accumulates, causing symptoms like rapid pulse, sweating, flushing, nausea and vomiting.
Joints – Alcohol impairs metabolism of a specific protein that can lead to increased production of uric acid, which is a waste product from normal body processes that, in high amounts, can cause a type of arthritis called gout. Some people may experience mild joint pain because of these increased levels after drinking.
Alcohol in the Workplace
Alcohol’s negative effects are dangerous in the workplace, especially in safety-sensitive roles or where alcohol abuse is high in certain industries, like Food Preparation & Serving services, Construction, Installation & Maintenance, and Transportation.
Companies must be aware of local, state, and federal rules surrounding workplace alcohol testing in order to keep the business safe from legal issues when an alcohol testing program and policy is in place.
For a free consultation, call CleanFleet to discuss your drug and alcohol testing program options at 503-479-6082.