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Facts about Alcohol
What are some of the facts about alcohol and its use in life?
A) Alcohol -- including beer, wine, and hard liquor are
the most commonly used and widely abused psychoactive drug in
the country. Alcohol is the most widely tried drug among teenagers.
Over 50% of 8th graders and 8 out of 10 12th graders report
having tried alcohol. Many teenagers report binge drinking --
in 1995, 30% of 12th graders surveyed reported binge drinking
(5+drinks in a sitting) in the previous 2 weeks. Even young
teens report irresponsible use of alcohol -- 25% of 8th graders
have been drunk.
Alcohol use is widespread, although the per capita consumption
has varied from decade to decade. While U.S. consumption of
alcoholic beverages increased after World II, since 1981 it
has declined slightly. But even with declines in alcohol use,
two of three American adults drink alcoholic beverages. About
half of all alcohol consumed in this country is ingested by
heavy drinkers, estimated to be between 6.5 and 10 percent of
the total population. The extent and frequency with which these
individuals drink cause serious health and behavioral problemsdisrupting
their own lives and that of their family, friends, and employersand
also extracts a heavy societal toll.
use is involved in:
One-half of all murders, accidental deaths, and suicides
One-third of all drowning, boating and aviation deaths
One-half of all crimes
Almost half of all fatal automobile accidents
health problems associated with alcohol include brain damage,
cancer, heart disease, and cirrhosis of the liver.
What about ingestion and its effects?
Alcohol is a potent nonprescription drug sold to anyone over
the national legal drinking age. This drug is a tranquilizer
and a member of the family of sedative-hypnotic drugs.
Temperate and occasional users of alcohol who are in normal
health do not appear to suffer negative effects from use of
Consumed in substantial amounts, alcohol's toxicity may be because
it acts as a foreign substance in the body's metabolism. The
short-term expression of this toxicity is felt as a hangover.
The long-term toxicity may develop into alcoholism and alcohol-related
diseases such as cirrhosis.
Unlike carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, which can be manufactured
by the body, alcohol is an introduced substance that is not
synthesized within the body. It is a food because it supplies
a concentrated number of calories, but it is not nourishing
and does not supply a significant amount of needed nutrients,
vitamins, or mineralsthese are empty calories.
Most foods are prepared for digestion by the stomach so that
their nutrients can be absorbed by the large intestine, but
95 percent of alcohol is absorbed directly through the stomach
wall or the walls of the duodenum and the small intestine.
factors affect the speed of alcohol's absorption into the body:
Watery drinks such as beer are absorbed more slowly.
Foods (especially fatty foods) delay absorption. Carbonated
beverages speed up the emptying of the stomach into the small
intestine, where alcohol is absorbed more quickly.
The drinker's physical and emotional state (fatigue, stress)
and individual body chemistry unpredictably affect absorption.
Gender: women have less alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks
down alcohol in the stomach, so more alcohol is absorbed into
Alcohol moves from the bloodstream into every part of the body
that contains water, including major organs like the brain,
lungs, kidneys, and heart, and distributes itself equally both
inside and outside of cells. Only 5 percent of alcohol is reduced
from the body through the breath, urine, or sweat; a larger
portion is oxidized or broken down in the liver.
Alcohol is broken down in steps by enzymes until only carbon
dioxide and water remain as by-products.
Alcohol is processed at the rate of 0.3 ounce of pure ethanol
per hour (less than 1 ounce of whiskey), and unprocessed alcohol
circulates in the body. (The alcohol from two cocktailseach
about 1.5 ouncesingested before dinner is still present
in the body, in a diminished amount, 3 to 4 hours later.)
The liver's fixed rate of alcohol breakdown means that drinking
coffee or taking a cold shower does not speed the sobering process.
Therefore, giving coffee to a person who is drunk may produce
a wide-awake drunk, a chilling prospect if the drunk and friends
are deluded into thinking the drinker is sober enough to drive
moments of ingestion, alcohol reaches the brain where it:
Stimulates and agitates, initially producing euphoria.
Depresses and sedates, producing calmness and tranquility.
Induces a hypnotic state and sleep
Alcohol adversely affects motor ability, muscle function, reaction
time, eyesight, depth perception, and night vision. Since these
are the abilities needed to operate a motor vehicle and since
even moderate amounts of alcohol impair these abilities, drivers
should never NEVERdrink and drinkers should not
As a drinker continues to drink, alcohol depresses lung and
heart function, slowing breathing and circulation. Death can
occur if alcohol completely paralyzes breathing. However, this
state is seldom reached because the body rejects alcohol by
vomiting, or the drinker becomes comatose before he or she can
consume a fatal dose. Acute alcohol overdose leading to death
occurs most often in situations such as bars or college fraternities
where individuals may be encouraged to ingest large amounts
of alcohol rapidly.
hangover is a combination of physical symptoms:
Headache: Blood vessels in the head, dilated by alcohol, painfully
stretch as they return to their normal state.
Upset stomach: Alcohol irritates the gastric lining, leading
to acute gastritis.
Dehydration: Alcohol acts as a diuretic, stimulating the kidneys
to process and pass more water than is ingested.
Hangover is a withdrawal state. If you medicate this withdrawal
with more alcohol, the alcohol will continue to circulate in
the blood and will not be perceptually eliminated. Taking amphetamines
(uppers) merely masks hangover symptoms.
The best prevention for a hangover is abstinence.
What are the physical effects of alcohol abuse?
Since alcohol so easily permeates every cell and organ of the
body, the physical effects of chronic alcohol abuse are wide-ranging
and complex. Large doses of alcohol invade the body's fluids
and interfere with metabolism in every cell. Alcohol damages
the liver, the central nervous system, the gastrointestinal
tract, and the heart. Alcoholics who do not quit drinking decrease
life expectancy by 10 to 15 years.
Alcohol also can impair vision, impair sexual function, slow
circulation, cause malnutrition, cause water retention (resulting
in weight gain and bloating), lead to pancreatic and skin disorders
(such as middle-age acne), dilate blood vessels near the skin
causing "brandy nose," weaken the bones and muscles,
and decrease immunity.
The liver breaks down alcohol in the body and is therefore the
chief site of alcohol damage. Liver damage may occur in three
Fatty Liver. Liver cells are infiltrated with abnormal fatty
tissue, enlarging the liver.
Alcoholic Hepatitis. Liver cells swell, become inflamed, and
die, causing blockage. (Causes between 10 and 30 percent mortality
Cirrhosis. Fibrous scar tissue forms in place of healthy cells,
obstructing the flow of blood through the liver. Various functions
of the liver deteriorate with often fatal results. (Found in
10 percent of alcoholics.)
Cannot convert stored glycogen into glucose, thus lowering blood
sugar and producing hypoglycemia. It inefficiently detoxifies
the bloodstream and inadequately eliminates drugs, alcohol,
and dead red blood
Cannot manufacture bile (for fat digestion), prothrombin (for
blood clotting and bruise prevention), and albumin (for maintaining
Alcohol in the liver also alters the production of digestive
enzymes, preventing the absorption of fats and proteins and
decreasing the absorption of the vitamins A, D, E, and K. The
decreased production of enzymes also causes diarrhea.
What about the brain and central nervous system?
Alcohol profoundly disturbs the structure and function of the
central nervous system, disrupting the ability to retrieve and
consolidate information. Even moderate alcohol consumption affects
cognitive abilities, while larger amounts interfere with the
oxygen supply to the brain, a possible cause of "blackout"
during drunkenness. Alcohol abuse destroys brain cells, producing
brain deterioration and atrophy, and whether the organic brain
damage and neuropsychological impairment linked to alcohol can
be reversed is unknown. Alcohol also alters the brain's production
of RNA (a genetic "messenger"), and serotonin, endorphins,
and natural opiates whose function may be linked to the addictive
A neurological disorder sometimes referred to as "Wernicke-Korsakoff's
Syndrome" can result from vitamin B deficiencies produced
by alcoholism and the direct action of alcohol on the brain.
Symptoms of this condition include amnesia, loss of short-term
memory, disorientation, hallucinations, emotional disturbances,
double vision, and loss of muscle control. Other effects include
mental disorders such as increased aggression, antisocial behavior,
depression, and anxiety.
What else does alcohol use do to the body?
Large amounts of alcohol may inflame the mouth, esophagus, and
stomach, possibly causing cancer in these locations, especially
in drinkers who smoke. Alcohol increases the stomach's digestive
enzymes, which can irritate the stomach wall, producing heartburn,
nausea, gastritis, and ulcers. The stomach of a chronic drinker
loses the ability to adequately move food and expel it into
the duodenum, leaving some food always in the stomach, causing
sluggish digestion and vomiting. Alcohol may also inflame the
small and large intestines.
Moderate daily drinking reportedly may be good for the heart,
but clearly for many the risks outweigh the benefits. Even one
binge may produce irregular heartbeats, and alcohol abusers
experience increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks,
heart arrhythmia, and heart disease. Alcohol may cause cardiomyopathy
(a disease of the heart muscle). Cessation of drinking aids
recovery from this condition.
What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a cluster of irreversible birth
abnormalities that are the direct result of heavy drinking during
Alcohol, like most other drugs, passes easily through the mother's
placenta and into the fetal bloodstream. In the fetus, the alcohol
depresses the central nervous system and must be metabolized
by the immature liver of the fetus, which cannot effectively
process this toxic substance. The alcohol stays in the fetus's
body for a prolonged time (even after leaving the mother's body)
and the unborn child remains intoxicated, possibly suffering
withdrawal symptoms after the alcohol is no longer present.
Children born with fetal alcohol syndrome typically are smaller
in size, have smaller heads, and suffer deformities of limbs,
joints, fingers, and face, as well as heart defects. They may
also have cleft palate and poor coordination.
In some children, FAS does not appear until adolescence, when
they exhibit hyperactivity and learning and perceptual difficulties.
These impairments are symptomatic of minimal brain dysfunction
(MBD), which affects between 5 and 19 percent of schoolchildren,
according to a study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse
and Alcoholism. Studies of children with FAS who are now teenagers
have uncovered new physical problemsear infections, hearing
and vision loss, and dental problems that were not identified
when the children were first studied at a younger age.
Only a small percentage of the children born to women who use
alcohol suffer FAS. The reasons for this are unknown. Maternal
risk factors for this condition include:
Chronic drinking during pregnancy
Previous problems with drinking
Some studies have shown that female light-to-moderate drinkers
(so-called social drinkers) give birth to babies with subtle
alcohol-related neurological and behavioral "problems".
Although these "problems" are less severe than those
in children of heavy drinkers, these findings indicate that
lesser amounts of alcohol can also cause developmental and behavioral
Pregnant women should abstain from all alcoholic beverages.
Women attempting to conceive should also abstain.
Are certain groups of people more likely to develop alcohol
problems than others?
Yes. Nearly 14 million people in the United States--1 in every
13 adults--abuse alcohol or are alcoholics. However, more men
than women are alcohol dependent or experience alcohol-related
problems. In addition, rates of alcohol problems are highest
among young adults ages 18-29 and lowest among adults 65 years
and older. Among major U.S. ethnic groups, rates of alcoholism
and alcohol-related problems vary.
If an alcoholic is unwilling to seek help, is there any way
to get him or her into treatment?
This can be a challenging situation. An alcoholic cannot be
forced to get help except under certain circumstances, such
as when a violent incident results in police being called or
following a medical emergency. This doesn't mean, however, that
you have to wait for a crisis to make an impact. Based on clinical
experience, many alcoholism treatment specialists recommend
the following steps to help an alcoholic accept treatment:
1. Stop all "rescue missions." Family members often
try to protect an alcoholic from the results of his or her behavior
by making excuses to others about his or her drinking and by
getting him or her out of alcohol-related jams. It is important
to stop all such rescue attempts immediately, so that the alcoholic
will fully experience the harmful effects of his or her drinking--and
thereby become more motivated to stop.
2. Time your intervention. Plan to talk with the drinker shortly
after an alcohol-related problem has occurred--for example,
a serious family argument in which drinking played a part or
an alcohol-related accident. Also choose a time when he or she
is sober, when both of you are in a calm frame of mind, and
when you can speak privately.
3. Be specific. Tell the family member that you are concerned
about his or her drinking and want to be supportive in getting
help. Back up your concern with examples of the ways in which
his or her drinking has caused problems for both of you, including
the most recent incident.
4. State the consequences. Tell the family member that until
he or she gets help, you will carry out consequences--not to
punish the drinker, but to protect yourself from the harmful
effects of the drinking. These may range from refusing to go
with the person to any alcohol-related social activities to
moving out of the house. Do not make any threats you are not
prepared to carry out.
5. Be ready to help. Gather information in advance
treatment options. If the person is willing to seek help, call
immediately to speak with a program counselor. Offer to go with
the family member to help them with getting enrolled and starting
6. Call on a friend. If the family member still refuses to get
help, ask a friend to talk with him or her, using the steps
described above. A friend who has recovered from alcohol abuse
may be particularly persuasive, but any caring, nonjudgmental
friend may be able to make a difference. The intervention of
more than one person, more than one time, is often necessary
to persuade an alcoholic person to seek help.
7. Find strength in numbers with the help of family members,
relatives, friends and a counselor to confront an alcoholic
as a group. While this approach is effective, it should only
be attempted under the guidance of a counselor who
is experienced in this kind of group intervention.
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