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Apr 23, 2014

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Alchohol and your body

By Marty Nachel

Alcohol is said to be a gift from the gods. Gifts of this nature can be both a blessing and a curse. Like fire before it, alcohol can warm you and it can burn you, with only a couple degrees of separation. Alcohol has the ability to make us lose our inhibitions and feel invincible while we are under its spell. It also has the ability to make us lose our lunch and feel immovable while we are under its heel. From euphoria to nausea, alcohol can be both friend and foe, poison and elixir.

According to a recent congressional report on alcohol and health, the annual health, social and economic costs of alcohol abuse and alcoholism in the United States accounted for an estimated 100,000 deaths, and over $86 billion dollars. The report also tells us that:

  • Heavy and chronic drinking can harm virtually every organ and system in the body.
  • As the primary site for alcohol metabolism, the liver is particularly vulnerable to alcohol's harmful effects. An affected liver can lead to hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis.
  • Alcohol can have harmful effects on the cardiovascular system; heavy drinking is associated with hypertension, weakened heart muscle, hemorrhagic stroke and arrhythmias.
  • Excessive alcohol abuse may cause deficiencies in a number of vitamins. Chronic drinkers may lose weight despite being well fed.
  • Chronic exposure to alcohol can result in the development of tolerance for, and physical dependence on alcohol.
Given the threat of disease and the physical and mental impairment that occurs with the consumption of alcoholic beverages, why do people by the millions continue to consume products containing alcohol? Determining why some people drink alcohol despite adverse consequences is a central issue in alcohol research. Researchers hoping to answer this question have begun to examine the concept of "reinforcement". Alcohol consumption produces pleasurable and anxiety-reducing sensations, both of which serve as reinforcers. Many people drink to experience alcohol's euphoric effects, but other factors, such as the anxiety-reducing property, may also motivate drinking.

While long-term, chronic drinking has been shown to result in grim consequences and the only real "cure" is abstinence, the short-term effects are less dire, more personal, and made more manageable through moderate consumption. Even amidst moderate consumption, though, other factors can negatively increase alcohol's effect on you. Also, remember that no two people will react to the same drink in exactly the same way. Remember the many different factors which determine how your drink will affect you:
  • Body weight/body type - In general, the less you weigh the more you will be affected. However, for people of the same weight, a well muscled individual will be less affected than someone with a higher percentage of body fat. Individual metabolism rates also come into play
  • Fatigue/lack of sleep - If you are tired, the effect of alcohol will be greater than if you are well rested.
  • Food (or lack of) - The less you have in your stomach, the more you will be affected. The alcohol absorption rate can be speeded up or slowed down, based on the amount of food within one's stomach at the time of consumption (as much as 20 percent of consumed alcohol is absorbed through the stomach, the rest through the intestines. High protein and fatty foods eaten prior to drinking are effective in slowing alcohol absorption in the stomach).
  • Medication/illness - If you are taking medication, or even sick and not on medication, it could increase the effect of alcohol.
  • Bad mood - foul moods or depression can actually increase alcohol's effect.
Also be aware of these factors:
  • Alcohol content - It's not how many drinks you have, it's how much alcohol you consume. Obviously, some drinks are more potent than others.
  • Drinking time - The longer you take to consume each drink, and the longer you wait between drinks, the less effect they will because this gives your body more time to metabolize the alcohol.
  • Carbonation - It is a fact that carbonation increases the assimilation of alcohol into the bloodstream; a particularly important point for beer drinkers.
How dry I am

One of the things alcohol does to the human body is dehydrate it. You may have noticed that after drinking several beers, it seems like you relieved yourself of more liquid than you drank. That's because ethyl alcohol (that which is produced by fermentation) within the human body effectively dehydrates its host. This loss of body fluid also results in the loss of some of the water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C, and the B-complex vitamins. Unlike other groups of vitamins that are stored in the body's fatty tissue, water-soluble vitamins are lost through perspiration and urination. This combination loss of vitamins and body fluid is largely responsible for the throbbing headache, lethargy, and certainly the experience of "cotton mouth" that inevitably follows a night of excessive consumption.

There are small preventative measures you can take to lessen alcohol's "morning after" effect, though there is still no substitute for moderation and cures for hangovers are as well-documented as cures for baldness. Forget trying to find a panacea because there is none. Knowing of alcohol's dehydrating effects, it's a wise idea to:
  • Drink a small glass of water between beers or at least every other beer.
  • Eat a well-balanced meal before drinking and take advantage of whatever snacks or meals are available throughout the period of consumption. Keeping your stomach comfortably full will not only slow your consumption, but the alcohol's absorption in your stomach as well.
  • Allow for plenty of sleep before the next morning's wake up call.
  • Have another glass of water before turning in (this'll give a whole new meaning to the term "wee" hours of the morning).
Sometimes, despite our best intentions, preventative procedures are not taken. Caught up in the fun and enjoying the moment to its fullest, there comes a time when we suddenly realize we have had too much to drink and it's much later than we realized. Now's the time for damage control. Nothing short of time and blood dialysis can actually undo the damage that's been done. Whatever alcohol is in your bloodstream will stay there until your body has had an opportunity to filter it out.

For those who thrive on technical trivia, alcohol is metabolized out of the human bloodstream at a rate of 20 to 30 milligrams of alcohol per deciliter of blood, per hour. The simple translation is for every drink you ingest, it takes approximately one hour to completely rid your body of the alcohol.

So now what do you do?
  • Start rehydrating immediately. Water is always the best choice, as it is neutral and it is absorbed the quickest. Fruit juices may replace some of the vitamins that have been lost but their acids may aggravate your stomach. Milk is believed to coat the stomach but there is no surefire proof of its effects. One common myth is that coffee sobers you up. This is not only untrue, the caffeine will just make you a wide-awake drunk! Cold showers and exercise are no more effective.
  • If your stomach will tolerate it, eat something. Avoid spicy and greasy foods or anything that might set off a queasy stomach. Try to eat things that are bland and starchy (loaded with carbohydrates), such as bread and potato-based items (forget the french fries), or cheese which is high in protein.
  • If you have B, C, or multiple vitamins handy, it probably wouldn't hurt to take a daily dose.
  • Get as much sleep as possible. There is no substitute for rest.
  • As part of my damage-control regimen, I always take a normal dose of non-aspirin pain reliever prior to going to bed (though this may not be endorsed by the AMA).
Special note to women: While this may sound chauvinistic, gender may be a factor in alcohol metabolism. Alcohol absorption study findings suggest that women may metabolize alcohol less efficiently than men, a difference that leads to higher blood alcohol concentrations in women over a shorter period of time.

The French Paradox

There has long been a phenomenon known as the French Paradox that seems to suggest that moderate consumption of alcohol actually benefits the human body. It is called the French Paradox because the French people eat 30 percent more fat than Americans, smoke more and exercise less, and yet, suffer fewer heart attacks than we do.

Cardiologists have descended on the gastronomic capital of France, Lyon, to study more closely the links between diet and alcohol consumption. While other factors such as food preparation, time between meals, snacking, and the amount of time spent eating are considered, the focus is on the amount of wine that is consumed with French meals. Per capita wine consumption is higher in France than anywhere else in the world. In contrast, the United States' per capita wine intake is among the lowest in the world. Even more telling is the region of the U.S. that consumes the least amount of wine- the "bible belt" of southern states, is known by doctors as Stroke Alley.

The belief is that alcohol affects blood platelets, the smallest of the blood cells. Platelets are responsible for blood clotting and the prevention of bleeding. They also cling to fatty deposits on artery walls, clogging and eventually blocking blood flow, leading to heart attacks. Alcohol has been found to have a flushing effect; it keeps platelets from sticking to artery walls.

While this revelation comes as good news, the focus of the study has been on wine, and red wine in particular. So far, similar studies involving beer consumption have been largely inconclusive.

There is some good news out of Washington as the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse is planning to do research on the health effects of moderate drinking. Funding for the NIAAA research is coming out of the budgets of the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. These agencies have been urged to develop a working strategy to study the effects of moderate alcohol consumption.

Finally, as a way to emphasize and reinforce the concept of drinking in moderation, I would like to mention the results of an unofficial study that suggests those who consume quality alcoholic beverages are far less likely to abuse them. In short, don't drink more- drink better.

1997 Marty Nachel

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