Alcohol: A Storm Brewing in Your Body by Tarah Peters
Buzz..Buzz..Buzz.. You’ve reached Jack, musta’ missed ya, I’ll call you right back.
It’s nighttime. His phone keeps blowing up, humming and dancing on the table to a tune he knows by heart. He takes a quick glance at the stack of books and past due bills lying next to it, thinking about work in the morning as he resistantly reaches for the phone. You’re the man, the life of the party.. After all, hair of the dog is what they say (or at least Nazareth did). You’re an adult, Jack, you can make your own decisions. The onslaught of bad ones that will ensue from your boozy bits again tonight will surely say differently.
It’s morning. Jack, agh, you stink. An oily sheen covers your face, as glossy as your bloodshot eyes. Somehow you manage to slither out of your stale sheets and stumble to the kitchen. You cringe, not only from a piercing and throbbing headache, but also because you forget to add water to the coffee maker as you attempt to (re)start your morning. You hear the gurgling and churning of every motor function in the machine begin to slow down and find yourself staring in a daze.
You’ve introduced a toxic substance to which your body is now working hastily to rid itself of.
Alcohol acts as a diuretic (increasing urinary output), meaning many of these symptoms, including dizziness, thirst, fatigue and your ‘cotton mouth’ are caused simply by dehydration. Water, Jack… Just drink a ton of water… The physiological change triggered by alcohol in your immune system, however, is not something replenishing fluids can quickly fix.
Cytokines are small proteins in your body; Chemical messengers that play a critical role in controlling inflammatory and immune responses. Alcohol disrupts the concentration level of cytokines in your body, which studies have shown are directly involved in the body’s “sickness response.” Additionally, the Foundational Medicine Review found that when your body metabolizes alcohol, the liver works first to breakdown ethanol to acetaldehyde, which is a highly toxic compound and known carcinogen. This toxin is then broken down further by an enzyme (alcohol dehydrogenase) to create a powerful antioxidant, which would typically mediate your hangover symptoms, but with heavy alcohol intake, acetaldehyde buildup occurs. Your liver has now shifted into overdrive and can no longer keep up with its antioxidant production, giving way to nausea and your pounding headache.
…What even happened last night?
Well, within just minutes of sipping your first scotch of the evening, alcohol was already being absorbed into the bloodstream through blood vessels in the lining of your stomach and small intestine. It quickly circulated through your body, making its way directly to the brain.
Alcohol targets several neurotransmitter systems in the brain:
It first increases the levels of serotonin (your happy, feel-good chemical), dopamine (the pleasurable, euphoric effects of alcohol, providing positive reinforcement and the concept of reward) and endorphins (naturally occurring painkillers).
The real strength, however, of alcohol lies in its ability to increase the release of GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain and the system responsible for the sedative effects of alcohol (muscle relaxants and sleep medications are drugs that affect this system as well).
Further contributing to your care-free, relaxed demeanor is alcohol’s role in decreasing activity of the main excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate (which would typically heighten your brain activity and energy levels).
The prefrontal cortex also experiences decreased activity at this stage, which is responsible for your rational thoughts and decision making. Continued drinking just enhances these inhibitory effects, resulting in sluggish movements, dramatically reduced reaction time and poor coordination, Psychology Today explains. With poor coordination comes a lack of muscle control, notably weakened eye muscles and blurred vision.
Much like the coffee filter you’ll be battling in the morning, your brain also becomes a sieve – but much more dangerously so, a sieve of information. Memory problems result from the effects of the ethanol on particular parts of the brain. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines two types of blackouts occurring as the result of alcohol; A partial blackout, in which case you may forget names or information that you would ordinarily be able to recall easily, and a complete blackout, when you forget everything for a period of time. Blackouts typically transpire from binge drinking, in which about five or more drinks are consumed in two hours for men and about four or more drinks in two hours for women. For many years, studies have consistently shown that individuals who drink large quantities of alcohol also suffer brain shrinkage and cognitive dysfunction as a result.
The pancreas, heart, skin, brain and immune system all agonize from your indulgence, in turn, increasing the risk of many cancers. The most prone to harm, however, is that crown-deserving crescent-shaped chemical factory that detoxifies your body, the liver. According to eMedicineHealth, drinking more than the liver can process over the long term can lead to alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and, in the worst case, alcoholic cirrhosis, which usually leads to a liver transplant or death.
Okay, let’s take a step back. Most American adults, like myself, like to ‘wind down’ with a glass of wine or a beer at the end of a long day, when socializing with friends and family, or the occasional toast of bubbly. In essence, moderate alcohol use is not likely to put us at risk. Drinking ‘in moderation’ is defined as having no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two for men. However, it’s sometimes difficult for a ‘moderate drinker’ to realize when their drinking becomes excessive or problematic, causing distress or harm, and in turn, evolving into alcohol abuse. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV describes alcohol abusers as those who continue to drink despite recurrent social, interpersonal and legal problems as a result of their alcohol use.
With continued and consistent alcohol abuse comes tolerance; the body becomes less susceptible to alcohol and now requires more in order to achieve that (now fiendish) feel-good effect. Adapted and consistently expecting the presence of this drug, the body is now dependent. The user consequently experiencing withdrawal symptoms and a ‘drink-seeking’ behavior. Alcohol dependence is a serious addiction where drinking can no longer be controlled. Those battling this addiction generally will require outside help to quit drinking.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that about 88,000 deaths in the United States are attributed to alcohol use each year. Doctors have since combined ‘alcohol abuse’ and ‘alcohol dependence’ into what is referred to as AUD, Alcohol Use Disorder, of which nearly 17 million American adults (that’s 7% percent of the total US adult population) are diagnosed and that number is on the rise.
Alcohol is a drug, pure and simple. A drug that’s been openly accepted and made common in society; so readily available in different forms that it’s difficult, even for me sometimes, to look at it that way.
While alcohol use disorder does severely impact your personal life and impair your body functions and health, much of the damage done to the brain can be reversed once a period of abstinence has been maintained. In heavy drinkers, some damage is permanent, such as nerve cell loss, but research shows that the brain, as well as its cognitive functioning, has the potential to return to its near normal size after a long period of abstinence.
Being one of the most abused, intoxicating substances on the planet, there are many programs and resources available to help not only detox safely, but also to change behaviors related to alcohol. Having the motivation to achieve long-term sobriety is your first step towards repairing not only your reputation and relationships that have been damaged along the way, but also your one and only body.
“Self-care is how you take your power back.”-Lalah Delia