Alcohol and Drinking

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What is alcohol?

Alcohol is derived from the fermentation of sugar by yeast. It is a drug. The main psychoactive ingredient in alcoholic drinks is ethanol, or ethyl alcohol.

Ethanol dissolves quickly in water and is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. In the short term, in small doses, it acts on receptors in the brain to make people feel uninhibited and provides a general sense of well-being. Drinking more alcohol starts to affect the balance and the speech centre of the brain. If you drink regularly, the brain’s receptors adapt to the alcohol and higher doses are needed to cause the same effect.

Alcohol is a depressant. Rather than acting as a stimulant, alcohol is likely to have the opposite effect on people who drink heavily.

 

What happens when you drink alcohol?

Alcohol is quickly soaked up through the lining of the stomach and the upper part of the gut (intestine) and into your blood stream. The higher the concentration of alcohol, the faster it will be absorbed (whisky will be faster than beer, for example).

From there, the alcohol is carried to your liver as well as other organs and body tissue. Your brain will be affected by the flow of alcohol which acts on the central nervous system to alter your physical coordination and mental judgement.

Your liver cannot store alcohol. It metabolises (processes) about 90 per cent of the alcohol you drink to eliminate it from your body. It breaks down the alcohol into water, gas (carbon dioxide) and fat.

 

What happens to the liver if you drink too much?

Along with the central nervous system, the liver suffers the most from alcohol consumption.

Your liver can only handle a certain amount of alcohol in any given time (one unit an hour). If you are drinking quickly, your liver cells will have to work overtime to process the alcohol. When this is more than the liver can deal with, the excess is transported to the rest of your organs.

Your liver needs water to do its job. As alcohol acts as a diuretic (makes you pass urine), it dehydrates you and forces the liver to divert water from elsewhere.

When the liver is processing alcohol it produces a substance called acetaldehyde. This has a toxic effect on the liver itself, as well as the brain and stomach lining. This is what causes your hangover.

Acetaldehyde is subsequently broken down into a chemical called acetate, which is broken down further into carbon dioxide and water outside the liver.

Regular and heavy drinking over time can strain or disrupt this process, leading to alcoholic liver disease.

The first stage of disease may not seem all that significant but must be acted upon. The later stages are very serious and can threaten your life.

British Liver Trust


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"Drinking is so ingrained in our culture that to refrain from it may be seen as a denial of that culture or an admission that we cannot conform to what is socially acceptable."

Norm Cohen

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