Alcohol and Our Brains

Life being as hectic as it is, sometimes it’s easy for me to get in a rut and keep a habit that does not necessarily serve me well.  My struggle is with eating.  Excessive eating, to be specific.  

Maybe we all have our own struggles to fight.  This post will address an issue that should concern all of us:  The effect of alcohol on our bodies.  There’s plenty of information available on alcohol, much of it bogus, intended only to promote the sale of it, with little regard to its real impact on the human body.

The  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm) says that drinking “too much alcohol can harm your health”.  That’s like saying “taking too much strychnine can harm your health”.   Duh.  The reality is, taking any alcohol does harm your health.

The CDC goes on to say that between 2011 and 2015, the use of alcohol led to 95,000 deaths and 2.8 million years of potential life lost and shortening the life of those who died by an average of 29 years.  The economic loss in 2010 was $249 billion dollars.  Those numbers seem to be acceptable to our society because the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages is our country and the world is a very large industry.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) (https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body) lists specific effects of alcohol on body organs, including the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, and the immune system.  They state that alcohol is a known carcinogen (a cancer causing agent).

There are numerous reputable sources of information on the effects of booze on the human body, including:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243

https://health.clevelandclinic.org/6-surprising-ways-alcohol-affects-health-not-just-liver/

https://www.alcohol.org.nz/alcohol-its-effects/body-effects/effects-on-the-body

edlineplus.gov/alcohol.html

This article will try to summarize the information given by https://www.webmd.com/

Straight to Your Head

The almost immediate effect of alcohol is on our brain, slowing down the chemicals and pathways our brain uses to send messages.  This alters our mood, slows our reflexes, and throws off our balance.  It also makes it more difficult to think straight, which we may not recall later, because we struggle to store things in our long-term memory.

Our Brain Shrinks

Drinking over a long period of time can actually shrink our brains.  If you drink heavily for a long time, booze can affect how your brain looks and works. Its cells start to change and even get smaller.  This can have a big effect on our ability to think, learn, and remember.

Our Sleep

Alcohol can make us drowsy, but we won’t sleep as well.  Our bodies process alcohol throughout the night.  When its effects wear off, we are left tossing and turning.  We don’t get the good REM sleep we need to feel restored.  We’re more likely to have vivid dreams or nightmares and will probably wake up more frequently to take trips to the bathroom, which can lead to dehydration.

More Stomach Acid

Booze irritates the lining of our stomach and makes our digestive juices flow.  When acid and alcohol build up, we get nauseated and may throw up.  Long-term drinking can cause ulcers in our stomachs.  High levels of stomach juices can mean we won’t feel hungry.  This is one reason some drinkers often don’t get the necessary nutrients they need.

Why You Have to Pee … Again

Our brain creates a hormone that keeps our kidneys from making too much urine.  Adding alcohol to our system tells our brain to hold off.  Drinking for years creates a heavy workload and the toxic effects of alcohol can wear down our kidneys.

The Steps to Liver Disease

Our liver breaks down most of the alcohol we drink.  The process handles many toxins.  Over time, drinking makes the liver fatty and lets thicker, fibrous tissue build up.  This restricts blood flow, so the liver cells don’t get what they need to survive.  They begin to die off, so the liver gets scars and stops working as well, a disease called cirrhosis.

Pancreas Damage and Diabetes

The job of the pancreas is to make insulin and other chemicals that help our intestines break down and digest food.  Alcohol jams up the process.  The chemicals remain in the pancreas and, along with toxins from alcohol, cause inflammation of the pancreas, which can lead to serious damage.  With enough time passing, we won’t be able to make the insulin we need, which can lead to diabetes and an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

A Change in Body Temperature

Alcohol relaxes our blood vessels, which makes more blood flow to the skin.  This makes us blush and feel warm and toasty...momentarily.  The heat passes quickly out of our body, causing our temperature to drop.  Additionally, long-term drinking boosts our blood pressure, making our bodies release stress hormones that narrow blood vessels, so our heart has to pump harder to push blood through the vessels

Weaker Immune System

Alcohol puts the brakes on our immune system. Our body can’t make the numbers of white blood cells it needs to fight germs. So for 24 hours after drinking, we’re more likely to get sick. Long-term, heavy drinkers are much more likely to get illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Hormone Havoc

Hormones manage everything from our sex drive to how fast we digest food. To keep it all going smoothly, we need hormones in the right balance. But alcohol throws them out of whack. In women, it can knock their periods off cycle and cause problems getting pregnant. In men, it can mean trouble getting an erection, a lower sperm count, shrinking testicles, and breast growth.

MYTH: Wine is the Gentlest Choice

Red wine contains tannins, which are compounds that are known to trigger headaches in some people.  Same goes for malt liquors, like whiskey, which also tends to cause severe hangovers.  To ease worries about hangovers, the most gentle choices are beer and clear liquors like vodka and gin.

MYTH: Hangovers Are No Big Deal

Heavy drinking destabilizes the central nervous system.  It messes with brain chemicals -- which leads to headache, dizziness, and nausea -- and sends us running to the bathroom, which leads to dehydration.  The morning-after cost can include pounding headaches, fatigue, cottonmouth, queasy stomach -- and a weakened immune system

MYTH: Hangovers Are Gender-Blind

If a man and a woman drink the same amount, the female is more likely to feel the effects.  Men have a higher percentage of water in their bodies than women, which helps dilute the alcohol.  Women who drink the same amount have a greater amount of alcohol in their bloodstream.

MYTH: Liquor Before Beer

It’s the amount of alcohol in the body rather than the order of ingestion that matters.   The standard sized drinks -- a 12-ounce glass of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce “shot” of liquor -- have about the same amount of alcohol.  Let’s not be fooled by the size of our drink or by any saying about alcohol use that includes the phrase “never fear.”

MYTH: Coffee Is the Cure

Caffeine narrows our blood vessels and can make our hangover worse.  The best cure for a hangover is water and sports drinks to counter dehydration and replace lost electrolytes -- especially if we threw up.

NO MYTH: Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a life-threatening emergency.  Symptoms include: 

  • Confusion and stupor
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow, irregular breathing
  • Low body temperature and bluish skin

It may be easy to blow off these symptoms as the price paid for partying hard, but if we see someone vomit multiple times or pass out after drinking heavily, there is a risk of severe dehydration or brain damage.  Immediately call 911.

Much of this article taken from: 

https://www.webmd.com/balance/ss/slideshow-hangover-myths

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