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Last updated date: 12-Feb-2023

Originally Written in English

Alcohol - What you need to know before consuming it

     

    What is Alcohol?

    Chemically referred to as ethanol or ethyl alcohol, alcohol is an organic compound formed when yeast ferments the sugars in certain types of food, meaning that it breaks down without oxygen. Its chemical formula is C2H5OH. There are, of course, other types of alcohol, such as isopropyl or butyl alcohol, but they are not safe for human consumption, being used for other purposes.

    It is an ingredient that exists in all types of alcoholic beverages that causes the feeling that people call drunkenness. As examples of alcohol formation, wine uses the sugar found in grapes, beer is made from the sugar in malted barley, which is a type of grain, and cider is from sugar in apples. According to this model, alcoholic beverages are formed from sugar in certain plants.

    Alcohol is considered to be a ‘sedative hypnotic drug’ due to its numerous effects on one’s body and brain, mainly depressing the central nervous system while consumed in high amounts. Lower doses lead to an increased feeling of euphoria and talkativeness, meaning it acts as a stimulant. More than 85% of the North American population confirmed that they’d consumed alcohol at some point in their life. Even though drinking may seem like a method of relaxation and personal enjoyment, it can quickly negatively impact one’s life, as consuming it involves multiple side effects that may lead to severe complications. 

     

    Is alcohol a depressant or a stimulant?

    The key to fully understanding this concept is acknowledging the difference between the two.

     

    What is a stimulant?

    A stimulant can be described as a substance having the ability to speed up activity in one’s central nervous system, resulting in experiencing a boost of energy and confidence. In addition to that, a stimulant can also increase one’s blood pressure and heart rate levels. Some stimulants are legal, while others are listed among illicit substances, relevant examples including caffeine, cocaine, nicotine, and amphetamines. Some people also call this type of substance “uppers”.

     

    What is a depressant?

    As opposed to stimulants, depressants are able to slow down the activity in the central nervous system, as well as the heart rate, while it also lowers one’s blood pressure. They usually induce a feeling of relaxation and sleepiness. Considering their name, some people believe that these substances are related to feeling depressed, yet that is not necessarily true. The term refers to the effects on the central nervous system and not the way it influences one’s mood. Some examples of depressant substances are barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cannabis, ketamine, and heroin. As stimulants are known as “uppers”, depressants are also called “downers”.

    Due to some of its effects, some people consider alcohol a stimulant. As it improves one’s confidence and offers a burst of energy, it is true that alcohol has some stimulant effects. It also increases one’s heart rate, as well as other physical modifications. However, professionals confirm that alcohol is scientifically classed as a depressant substance.

    Alcohol’s stimulant effects are only temporary, mostly experienced while consuming lower doses, generally less than 0.05 mg/l. These effects are a result of the brain releasing more dopamine (known as the “feel-good” hormone). Once the rate is over 0.08 mg/l, depressant effects are experienced. Apart from the main effects described above, others include disorientation, lowered inhibition, drowsiness, sedation, and a decreased level of coordination. The consumption of alcohol in large doses causes one to suppress dopamine production, resulting in feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression.

     

    What are the types of alcohol?

    Types of alcohol

    In the United States, the types are standardized to beer, wine, and liquor. There are many subcategories to these that play an important role in defining and regulating the production of specific beverages.

     

    Liquor or Spirits

    Vodka is typically made from certain grains such as wheat, sorghum, and corn, yet Russian vodka is made from potatoes. The process of producing it includes fermentation and an additional step of distilling in order to increase its strength.

    Gin is a type of liquor based on a neutral distilled spirit. Its flavor is induced by adding juniper berries and some other aromatic plants.

    Rum is generally made of fermented sugarcane, beet sugar, or molasses. In order to remove the sediments, the process requires distillation as well.

    Whiskey (scotch, bourbon, Irish and Canadian whiskey) is aged in oak barrels, offering a distinctive caramel color. Grains that are commonly used for this type of alcoholic drink are corn, rye, barley malt, and wheat.

    Tequila, mostly produced and consumed in Central and South America, is made of fermented agave.

    Liqueurs are described as distilled spirits mixed with specific fruit, cream, sugar, and botanicals in order to increase the intensity of their flavors. Examples of liqueurs include triple sec, amaretto, and Sambuca, yet there are numerous existing types.

     

    Wine

    Wine is an alcoholic drink that is normally made out of fermented grapes, combined with other fruits, berries, rice, and sometimes honey, although other ingredients may be added. Some well-known types of wine include red wine, white wine, rosé wine, and sparkling wine. There is a wide diversity of style and flavor within each type, mostly depending on the type of grapes that are used in the process of fermentation, as well as their region and the winemaker’s preferences.

    For this whole category of alcoholic drinks, there are two major subdivisions: fortified wine and unfortified wine. Unfortified wine consists of any wine having an alcohol percentage of no more than 16% (alcohol by volume). The other type, fortified wine, also contains a certain amount of distilled spirit (usual brandy) added to the base wine during fermentation in order to increase its alcohol content. The original purpose of the fortification process was to preserve the wine and even enhance its natural flavors. Regulations in the United States imply that fortified wine shouldn’t contain more than an ABV of 24%.

     

    Beer

    Statistics show that beer is the most consumed alcoholic drink all around the world. The process of producing beer involves extracting raw materials with water, boiling, and fermenting. Its main ingredients are water, malt, hops, and yeast, although there are many formulas and recipes depending on the producer’s preferences.

     

    What is the alcohol percentage content in some common alcoholic drinks?

    Alcohol consumption has been part of human civilization for more than 10,000 years. Over the years, many types of alcoholic beverages have been developed and commercialized in different cultures across the world. The alcohol percentage is measured in ABV (alcohol by volume) in the United States. The ABV in most common alcoholic drinks are:

    • Vodka- starting around 40%, yet it may range up to 95%;
    • Rum, whiskey, and gin- an average of 36% to 50%;
    • Tequila- typically 50-51%;
    • Liqueurs- 15%;
    • Wine- as previously mentioned, depending on the type, it can contain up to 24% when it is fortified and 14% to 16% for unfortified wine;
    • Beer has an ABV of 4% to 8%, while other malt beverages may be stronger, up to 15%.

     

    How are alcohol servings measured?

    Alcohol servings

    As mentioned before, it is important for those who sell or consume alcohol to know the alcohol percentage content of certain types of drinks. Due to legal regulations, serving sizes are standardized to contain roughly 0.6 ounces of substance per serving. For example, wine is served in 5 ounces per glass (12% ABV), and beer is served in a quantity of 12 ounces (5% ABV). The serving measurement for liquor or spirits is 1.5 ounces per shot, as their alcohol percentage is higher (40% ABV). Any mixed drinks, cocktails, or other forms of combined alcoholic beverages are measured in legal terms using the standard serving measurements described above.

     

    What is the difference between a normal drink, moderate drinking, and excessive drinking?

    In the United States, one serving respecting the standard quantity is referred to as a standard drink. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults should limit their intake to two drinks (or less) per day for men and one drink (or less) per day for women, yet this should not be a daily habit. Excessive drinking implies binge drinking, heavy drinking, and drinking by pregnant women and underage people.

    Binge drinking is considered to be the most common type of excessive drinking, described as consuming four or more drinks during a single occasion for women and five or more for men. Heavy drinking consists of more than eight drinks per week for women and more than fifteen for men.

     

    Who should not drink alcoholic beverages?

    Other than underage teens that are not legally allowed to be served or consume alcohol, there are some other categories of persons that should avoid drinking. These include pregnant women, drivers, or people that engage in other activities requiring coordination and alertness, people that suffer from specific medical conditions or take certain types of medications that can interact with alcohol, as well as people that recover from alcoholism.

     

    How does alcohol get into the blood?

    When an individual decides to consume alcohol, there are a few modifications regarding the functions of the human body. Once swallowed, alcohol is quickly absorbed into human blood, moving towards multiple parts of the body. A small part of the consumed alcohol moves directly into the small blood vessels inside the mouth and tongue, this process being almost immediate. Later on, up to 20% of the amount of alcohol passes through the stomach into the blood. The procedure is influenced by the amount of food that exists in the stomach.

    When one’s stomach is empty, alcohol rapidly moves into the intestines. In the opposite case, if there is any food, the substance remains in the stomach for a longer amount of time, a part of it being broken down by an enzyme found in the human stomach. This is the scientific explanation for why people feel drunkenness more intensely when they don’t get enough food before consuming alcohol. The remaining amount of 75% to 85% of the substance is absorbed through the small intestine into the blood.

     

    What happened to the alcohol inside the blood?

    Once alcohol is inside human blood, it can rapidly be moved toward all parts of the body. The substance remains circulating in the blood as long as it takes the liver to be able to break most of it down. The liver has an important role in the process of filtering the blood, as it uses specific enzymes in order to break down 80% to 90% of the alcohol to water (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and calories that the human body uses for energy. However, this organ is only capable of breaking down a certain amount of substance in a certain amount of time, the average rate being one standard drink per hour.

    Another organ that helps slowly eliminate the alcohol from the blood is represented by the kidneys, which filter the blood and remove waste through urine. When alcohol is consumed, the amount of urine that is produced by the kidneys increases, resulting in 10% of the alcohol being eliminated through urine. Some amount of alcohol (up to 8%) is also eliminated by breathing it out through the lungs. A tiny amount of alcohol is also evaporated from the fine line vessels that are placed right under the skin.

    Within five to ten minutes after having an alcoholic drink, alcohol tends to manifest its effects on the human brain. Some of these include mood changes, difficulties in thinking processes, issues regarding movement coordination, and sometimes some memory gaps generally known as “blackouts”.

     

    How are the alcohol levels inside the blood tested?

    Breath alcohol test

    A breath alcohol test, also known as a breathalyzer, is described as a test that measures the amount of alcohol that is in the air one breathes out in order to estimate the blood alcohol concentration, abbreviated as BAC.

    This is the most common method used by police officers on people they suspect of drinking while driving. However, the results of the breath alcohol test are not perfectly accurate, and in some cases, blood tests are required in order to guarantee precise values.

     

    What factors influence the BAC level and each individual’s reaction to alcohol?

    The BAC increases, and physical effects of alcohol occur when the substance is consumed faster than the liver can break it down. It is important to note that different people can have different reactions to the same amount of alcohol ingested. Some factors that may influence the BAC level and people’s reactions to the substance include:

    • The ability of the liver to break down alcohol varies due to genetic reasons;
    • The amount of food existing in the stomach while drinking as food drastically slows the process of absorption into the blood because it prevents it from getting into the small intestine;
    • The concentration of alcohol in the specific drink that is consumed and the rapidity of drinking;
    • The consumer’s body type- more weight implies more muscles and fat that absorb the substance;
    • The frequency of drinking alcohol- a person that drinks regularly is more likely to tolerate the effects of alcohol than someone who doesn’t;
    • Other factors such as age, sex, or ethnicity can also influence the BAC level and its effect – for example, drinking the exact same amount of alcohol by a man and a woman usually results in a higher BAC for the female because of differences in metabolism and absorption. 

     

    What are some general symptoms/ effects for every BAC level? 

    BAC

    Small amounts of alcohol (under 50 mg/dL) imply some level of impairment in motor coordination and thinking processes, talkativeness, and a feeling of relaxation. 50 to 150 mg/dL results in mood changes (unexpected well-being or sadness), friendliness, issues regarding concentration and judgment, and sometimes reduced sexual disinhibition. 

    Increasing the alcohol levels to 150-250 mg/dL causes more severe symptoms such as nausea, double vision, increased heart rate, behavioral modifications that may be sudden and upset the people around, drowsiness, and difficulties in speech and walking. The BAC level of 300 mg/dL involves memory loss, confusion, vomiting, and heavy breathing. Last but not least, any amount over 400 mg/dL may lead to a coma or even death.

    Alcohol proof is described as twice the ethanol content by volume. As an example, a whiskey with 50% alcohol is 100-proof whiskey.

     

    Why is alcohol bad for one’s health?

    Alcohol consumption might leave a definitive mark on each of the persons who ingest it.

     

    Short-term health risks and effects of alcohol

    Excessive consumption of alcohol has rapid effects that increase the risk of various health conditions. Some examples are:

    • All types of injuries- alcohol is a huge factor when discussing many accidents such as motor vehicle crashes, drowning, and burns. It may also be a cause of violence (homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and others).
    • Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency that may lead to coma or death, occurring when the BAC level is over 0.2 mg/L. Symptoms include psychological confusion, vomiting, seizures, slow heart rate, extremely low body temperature, and difficulties in being conscious.

     

    Long-term health risks and effects of alcohol

    Over time, excessive drinking may lead to the development of certain chronic diseases or other severe complications such as:

    Increased blood pressure up to unhealthy levels, as well as heart disease and stroke; another way the human heart may be affected is stretching and dropping of the heart muscle and having an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmias).

    • Liver disease- involves symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, and increased thirst. Some of the diseases of the liver that can be caused by abusive alcohol consumption are alcoholic hepatitis (an inflammatory condition with additional symptoms of vomiting blood, weight loss, and fever, as well as yellow eyes), cirrhosis (also implying atrophy- weakening of the muscles) and fibrosis. Also, the inner lining of the stomach may also get inflamed; a condition called gastritis.
    • Cancer of certain body parts (breast, mouth, throat, liver, and others)
    • A weaker immune system increases the risks of getting sick- chronic drinkers are more likely to contract certain types of diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.
    • Alcohol effects on the brain include learning and memory problems. Dementia may be induced by alcohol consumption, as it damages the brain. A person suffering from dementia may find it difficult to complete everyday tasks. Another effect on the brain is represented by mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
    • Consumption of alcohol determines the pancreas to produce toxic substances that may lead to pancreatitis (inflammation, redness, and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas).
    • A condition called jaundice characterized by yellowish-colored eyes may also be developed due to alcohol use, being linked to the development of hepatitis.
    • Alcohol use disorders or alcohol dependence.

     

    What is alcohol use disorder?

    Alcohol use disorder

    Abbreviated as AUD, alcohol use disorder is a medical condition featured by impaired abilities to control alcohol use despite its various consequences. It is characterized by a strong desire to drink and feelings of anxiety and irritability while not consuming the substance. Alcohol use disorder can vary from mild to severe, depending on the experienced symptoms. AUD incorporates the conditions referred to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, addiction, and simply alcoholism. The possible consequences include withdrawal symptoms (sweating, shaking, nausea), inappropriate behaviors, and mood changes causing reduced social activity and issues regarding responsibility at home or work.

    A cognitive-physiological theory on AUD is represented by alcohol myopia, and it mostly refers to one’s increased tendency to be less aware of certain distant events and more focused on immediate events.

     

    Treatment for alcohol use disorder

    Recovery from AUD could be possible, especially with the right professional treatment. One’s healthcare provider or other medical professional is able to develop a personalized treatment plan that may involve:

    • Medications: naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram may help reduce drinking and prevent relapsing.
    • Behavioral Treatments: licensed therapists can target changing drinking behaviors by building motivation and teaching certain skills in order to prevent relapse.
    • Mutual-Support Groups: peer support may be helpful for one in the process of alcohol withdrawal. They may also help people at risk for relapse.

     

    Alcohol withdrawal timeline

    Alcohol withdrawal

    Giving up alcohol and alcohol detox may be very difficult processes for some people, especially if they used to drink excessively and regularly. Even though the timeline may differ from one person to another, the first six to twelve hours after the last drink generally include mild symptoms (headache, insomnia, and mild anxiety). After a whole day, some people may experience visual or auditory hallucinations. Later on, from 24 to 72 hours, symptoms tend to slowly disappear.

    A simple search on the internet of “alcohol treatment near me” or “alcohol rehab near me” may help with finding the right treatment center or rehab center.

     

    Alcohol during pregnancy

    As consumption of alcohol can harm an unborn child, women that are pregnant or planning a pregnancy shouldn’t drink. In addition to that, women who are breastfeeding should also avoid drinking alcohol. Even small amounts of the substance may harm the baby’s development.

    While planning a pregnancy, alcohol can affect the fertility of both men and women. When already pregnant, a woman drinking alcohol causes the unborn baby to have the same amount of substance in their blood, causing a lower birth weight, premature birth, birth defects, and even miscarriage. Mothers should only start drinking again after they finish breastfeeding because the substance crosses into the breast milk, and it may affect the development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord.

     

    What is alcohol fetal syndrome?

    The alcohol in a pregnant woman’s blood can easily pass to the baby through the umbilical cord, causing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FADs), a set of medical conditions leading to several physical and behavioral issues. Most common signs and symptoms include low body weight, impaired coordination, hyperactive behaviors, issues regarding concentration, memory, and learning abilities, and even problems with vision, hearing, and heart functions. 

    Even though there is no specific cure for FADs, studies confirm that early intervention treatment services may improve one’s development. Some treatment options include medications that reduce the intensity of some symptoms and behavioral and educational therapy.

     

    Alcohol interactions

    • Zyrtec: when mixed or combined with alcohol, possible consequences include drowsiness, sedation, and issues regarding coordination and judgment;
    • Antibiotics: drinking alcohol while taking antibiotics may delay recovery time
    • Prednisone: even though there is no direct interaction with alcohol, using both at the same time may increase the intensity of their effects;
    • Certain medications- it is recommended to consult a pharmacist or medical professional regarding taking alcohol and certain medicines together, as it may lead to various problems. Some of these medications include antidepressants, tranquilizers, paracetamol and painkillers, mood stabilizers, and others.

     

    Other facts about alcohol consumption

    Alcohol consumption

    Signs of alcohol intolerance or allergy may include facial redness and itchy skin bumps called hives and rashes.

    While following a ketogenic (keto diet), one can still drink alcohol, yet only some types of alcoholic drinks are keto-friendly, meaning the ones that have lower levels of carbohydrates. For example, wine is better for consumption following a keto diet than beer because of its carbohydrate contents.

    Due to the advance in technology nowadays, multiple online tools such as BAC calculators are available in order to figure out when one will be sober and ready to drive or do any other regular activities that require coordination.

    Consuming alcoholic beverages frequently may prevent one from receiving the expected benefits from vitamins and nutrients; an issue called alcohol vitamin deficiency.

    Even though some people believe so, alcohol doesn’t cause diabetes.

    Statistics show that 1.4% of the world population has an alcohol use disorder.

    Too much alcohol may lead to pain and tingling in one’s limbs, a condition called alcoholic neuropathy. 

    As alcohol causes dehydration, the substance is not recommended for those who have kidney stones. However, there is no strong evidence confirming that alcohol is linked to the formation of kidney stones.

    It is generally known that isopropyl alcohol has the ability to kill bedbugs, as well as their eggs. However, it is not a very effective method to get rid of them.

     

    Conclusion

    Alcohol is a chemical substance mostly found in some beverages such as beer, wine, and liquor. Even though some people say it is a method of relaxation and enjoyment, consumption may lead to severe consequences and side effects, especially if taken in high amounts. Alcohol easily moves through one’s blood, affecting almost every organ in the body. Some of its possible effects are cancer, liver disease, heart disease, weak immune system, and others.

    It is truly important to consult a specialist regarding mixing this substance with any type of medicine, as the interactions may strongly harm one’s health condition. In cases of addiction or any form of an alcohol use disorder, multiple options are available for one’s withdrawal, including treatment centers, support groups, and detox techniques.