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Alcohol and You

Effects of Drinking Alcohol

Effects of drinking alcoholMost, if not all drinkers are well aware of the immediate and obvious effects of drinking alcohol – the release of inhibitions, the increased sociability and the general feeling of the “high” – but how many really understand what is going on within their bodies when they continue to drink heavily for long periods of time. Sure, we all know that some unfortunate people end up with cirrhosis of the liver, but then, it’s only a few isn’t it?

It’s tempting to think therefore that the damaging effects caused by excessive drinking is an either/or situation. Either the harm will be severe and disastrous, or it won’t occur at all (and probably won’t occur to us…)

The fact is, however, that the risk of harm from excessive drinking increases rapidly once the recommended daily or weekly limits are exceeded, and damage can occur without the drinker even being aware of it.

Blood Alcohol Concentration

In terms of the effect that alcohol has on the brain, it is not the amount that is sitting in your stomach but the percentage actually circulating in your blood at any given time. This is described as the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC).

Some of the alcohol will be absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach wall, but around two thirds of it will pass into your small intestines, where it will be absorbed into the blood more rapidly.

Once in the blood, the alcohol will travel all over the body, including the brain, where it will enter the nerve cells, slowing down their activity.

Broadly speaking, one standard drink – in the UK a single unit is defined as 8g, or 10ml of pure alcohol – will raise the BAC by 15mg%, although this will vary slightly depending on the weight of the individual, their metabolism and the amount of food they have in their stomach and small intestine.

Also, this figure will be slightly higher in women since they have more fat tissue and less water content in the body.

Only 10 minutes after having a drink, 50% of the alcohol will be in your bloodstream, with the remainder being absorbed after 30 minutes to one hour.

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B.A.C. and Drink Driving

The UK drink driving limit is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. This suggests that for an average man drinking an average strength beer, this is between 1 to 2 pints, although with so many variables to consider the only safe way to stay under the limit is either to not drink at all, or to use a breath testing device prior to driving.

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Effects caused by increasing amounts of alcohol on the brain

1  6 Units

    • Overall improvement in mood and possible euphoria
    • Increased self-confidence
    • Increased sociability
    • Shortened attention span
    • Flushed appearance
    • Impaired judgment
    • Impaired fine muscle coordination

6 – 12 Units

    • Sedation
    • Impaired memory and comprehension
    • Delayed reactions
    • Difficulty balancing; unsteady walk
    • Blurred vision; other senses may be impaired

12 – 20 Units

    • Profound confusion
    • Extreme displays of emotion (eg crying)
    • Impaired senses
    • Analgesia
    • Lack of muscular co-ordination
    • Impaired speech
    • Staggering
    • Dizziness often associated with nausea (“the spins”)
    • Vomiting

20 – 30 Units

    • Lapses in and out of consciousness
    • Unconsciousness
    • Progressive  amnesia
    • Vomiting (death may occur due to inhalation of vomit (pulmonary aspiration) while unconscious)
    • Respiratory depression (potentially life-threatening)
    • Decreased heart rate (usually results in coldness and/or numbness of the limbs)
    • Urinary incontinence

30 Units plus

    • Unconsciousness (coma)
    • Depressed reflexes (i.e., pupils do not respond appropriately to changes in light)
    • Marked and life-threatening respiratory depression
    • Markedly decreased heart rate
    • Most deaths from alcohol poisoning are caused by dosage levels in this range.

Remember that the above figures do not necessarily relate to the amount someone has drunk over a given period of time, rather the concentration of alcohol in the blood (BAC) at any given time.

Long Term effects of alcohol on the body

Longer term and cumulative effects of heavy drinking affect all parts of the body, but in particular the liver and the nervous system.

Damage to the nervous system can lead to loss of balance, impotence, numbness of the feet and hands, tremor and blindness, whilst the liver can become progressively damaged due to cirrhosis.

Equally, damage to the brain can cause problems with intellectual function as well as increasing the risk of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and dementia.

Removal of Alcohol from the body

The body gets rid of alcohol from the system in two ways – by oxidation and by elimination.

Oxidation means that the alcohol is effectively processed within the body whereby cells combine dissolved food in the blood with oxygen, releasing heat and energy in the process. This takes place primarily in the liver, and around 90% of consumed alcohol will be processed in this way.

Only a small amount (between 2 – 10%) of alcohol escapes unused via the breath, urine or sweat glands.

As a rule of thumb, it will take approximately 1 hour for every unit of alcohol consumed to completely burn up all the alcohol.

This is why we are cautioned about driving in the morning after a heavy session, as we may still have significant amounts of alcohol in our bodies. To illustrate this, consider the following scenario:

    • You have been invited to a social function at work which will involve meeting colleagues for drinks around 8pm followed by a meal, and the function is planned to finish at 12 midnight.
    • During the evening you consume 3 pints of beer and the equivalent of 1 bottle of wine.
    • You are due to drive to a business meeting at 7am the following morning.

As you can see from the graph, in total you consumed around 18 units of alcohol during the evening, having your last drink before midnight, and although you burnt some of this up while you were drinking, it still took until 1pm the following day for all the alcohol to be totally removed from your system. More worrying is that at 7am the following morning, you still had 6 units of alcohol in your body – or around two thirds of a bottle of wine.

It can be seen that although spacing out the time period over which the alcohol is consumed will affect the degree of intoxication, it will have little effect on the time it takes to remove the alcohol from the system, and furthermore will have little effect on the overall health damage to the individual.

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Important Note:
The above graph is for illustration purposes only and should not be used to decide whether or not you are fit to drive following the consumption of alcohol. There are a number of variables affecting individual circumstances and the only way to be certain that you are safe to drive is to use a breath testing device. If you are in any doubt about your fitness to drive you should avoid doing so.

Self-Testing Breathalysers

Carrying your own self-testing breathalyser device is always a good idea if you are worried about the “morning after” effects of heavy drinking, particularly if you drive as part of your work or if socialising plays a big part of your work related activities.

However, if you find yourself driving in France from 2012 then not only is this a good idea but also a legal requirement.

From the 1st July 2012 any vehicle travelling in France will be required to carry a breathalyser on board in order to test the level of alcohol in the blood of the driver if required. In practice this means carrying two breathalysers, since if you use one to self-test if you are ok to drive, you will still need to carry one on board should you be stopped by the police.

Note that any breathalysers you carry should comply with French Law and be NF (French Laboratory) approved. If you do not have a breathalyser you will be liable for a fine.

 

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