Perhaps because beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages are so common in everyday life, most people do not think of alcohol as a drug. But alcohol is a drug, a powerful central nervous system depressant that is generally classified with similar drugs such as barbiturates, minor tranquilizers, and general anesthetics. As a depressant, alcohol depresses, or slows down, the operation of the central nervous system, which includes the brain and the spinal cord.
The depressed performance of the central nervous system caused by alcohol consumption creates the slurred speech, impaired physical coordination, and other physical signs that indicate a person has been drinking. But in Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism, authors James R. Milam and Katherine Ketcham explain that this drug is complex in the variety of ways it can affect the human body: “Alcohol is an infinitely confusing substance. In small amounts it is an exhilarating stimulant. In larger amounts it acts as a sedative and as a toxin, or poisonous, agent.”
Thus, when people first begin drinking, they usually feel happy and more energetic. As they consume more and more alcohol, however, the drug’s depressive effects begin to emerge, creating the behavior associated with being intoxicated. Finally, if a person consumes enough alcohol at one time, this drug can be deadly And all of these complex reactions to alcohol begin in one place — the brain.
Alcohol is processed in the body through a series of chemical reactions. These reactions — called metabolism — break down food and other ingested substances to simple compounds the body can use. The liver is die organ that does the bulk of this work. It metabolizes alcohol, removing it from the bloodstream at a constant rate of one standard drink per hour. A standard drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, all of which contain .5 ounces of alcohol. Because the human body can only process alcohol at that fixed rate of one drink per hour, people who consume more than one drink per hour will gradually increase the alcohol levels in their blood. The result of this is that they will become intoxicated.
The body’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC), also known as blood alcohol level (BAL), is the medically recognized method for calculating how much someone has had to drink. The blood alcohol concentration is the amount of alcohol in the blood measured in percentages; a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10 percent, for example, means that a person’s bloodstream has one part alcohol per one thousand parts of blood.
As alcohol levels rise, intoxication begins. The effects of intoxication are many and varied, and they continually change as people keep drinking.
The Amount of Alcohol in One Drink
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
- 1.5 ounces of liquor (40% alcohol)
Each of the three types of alcohol listed above has about the same amount of ethyl alcohol — .5 ounces.
Factors in Becoming Intoxicated
Because of the way alcohol circulates in the body, a person’s size plays an important part in determining how quickly alcohol will affect him or her and how drunk that person will become. A person weighing 220 pounds, for instance, will not become as intoxicated by the same number of drinks as a person weighing 120 pounds. Because the blood supply is correspondingly bigger, a similar amount of alcohol will be more diluted in the larger person’s body. Another consideration is whether the drinker has eaten lately. The presence of food in a person’s stomach will slow down how quickly alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream.
There are also individual variances in the speed with which people metabolize alcohol because of their own unique body chemistry. The gender of the drinker makes a difference because women usually absorb and metabolize alcohol more quickly than men, which means they will have higher blood alcohol concentrations after consuming the same amount of alcohol.
A key factor is whether the person having a drink is a regular drinker. Dr. Gail Gleason Milgram explains that experience with alcohol plays a part in how intoxicated people will become by consuming the same amount of alcohol:
Someone drinking a glass of wine [for the first time] may experience light -headedness but will probably not experience that effect on subsequent occasions. However, most individuals who drink know what to expect from various amounts of alcohol because of their prior experience with drinking.
The reason for this is that when people drink on a regular basis, their bodies build up a physical tolerance to alcohol that helps them stay sober. Regular drinkers also become so accustomed to what alcohol does to their bodies that they can better cope with the changes alcohol causes.
Although alcohol’s effects are powerful, there are not many immediate health risks from occasional drinking. For those who do drink too much, the most common health problem is a hangover, the symptoms of which include headaches, nausea, and other bodily discomfort. A hangover can last for hours or even days depending on how much the person drank.
Occasional drinkers must also be careful to make sure they are not taking any medication that could interact with the alcohol they are consuming. In some cases, alcohol can react with prescription drugs to make a person very ill.
A Dangerous Drug
Although there are not many health risks for those who drink moderately once in a while, alcohol in large amounts is both powerful and potentially dangerous. Many serious health consequences exist for people who drink a lot over a long period, including liver and brain damage.
Alcohol is also highly addictive, and when a person becomes hooked on drinking, this drug can destroy his or her life. In The Facts About Drugs and Alcohol, Dr. Mark S. Gold explains just how dangerous this drug can be. “Alcohol,” he writes,” is the most destructive drug known to mankind … without a doubt, the world’s most abused substance.”
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