While most of us are familiar with the effects — and aftereffects — of alcohol consumption, the processing it undergoes within the body often is overlooked.
“Alcohol is a complicated drug,” said Dr. Clarence Dunagan, MD FACEP, medical director of emergency services at MountainView Hospital and Fremont Emergency Services. “In small quantities, it can actually be beneficial for the body. But it’s easy for a lot of people to cross the line, and of course, we see a lot of that in Las Vegas.”
Here’s a look at how your body metabolizes alcohol and its effects on your organs.
The liver is responsible for metabolizing alcohol with enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases. As these enzymes break down alcohol, acetaldehyde, a toxic agent, is released into the bloodstream.
Your body excretes acetaldehyde through urine, stool and sweat, but it remains in the body even once you’ve stopped drinking, which can contribute to a hangover.
The rate that the liver metabolizes alcohol does not change, even when there’s an increased demand, meaning that if you flood your body with alcohol, your liver won’t process the alcohol any faster than it would under normal conditions.
Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the lining of the stomach. Depending on the person, the volume of his or her stomach and the amount eaten that day, it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for alcohol to reach the bloodstream.
“There’s a significant lag from the time you take a drink to the time it takes to feel the alcohol’s effect,” Dunagan said. “People forget that, and oftentimes, that’s how people lose control.”
“People often mistake alcohol for a stimulant, when in fact it’s a central nervous system suppressant,” Dr. Clarence Dunagan said. Consuming alcohol suppresses the function of neurotransmitters in the brain, which in turn slows brain processing and increases dopamine levels.
That’s why a couple of drinks can make you feel calm, happy and sleepy. However, if you drink excessively, suppression of your central nervous system can cause unconsciousness or even a coma.
While one or two glasses of red wine can be good for your heart, heavy use of alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle) and an increased risk of stroke.
Alcohol consumption can weaken the esophageal sphincter, the muscle that divides the esophagus and the stomach. This can cause and exacerbate gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
The pancreas is responsible for producing insulin and digestive enzymes. It can be damaged by excessive alcohol use. “Pancreatitis is something we see in the ER a lot, and it is almost always seen in the patients who have gallstones or patients who drink a ton of alcohol,” Dunagan said.
Do different alcohols create different types of intoxication?
The active ingredient in any type of alcohol (beer, wine or liquor) is ethanol. While someone may claim that drinking wine creates one type of drunk, whereas drinking tequila creates another, the body doesn’t draw the same distinctions. It’s all ethanol, just in varying quantities.
Typically, the amount of ethanol in a 12-ounce beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine and a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor is equal.
Dehydration dangerous for drinkers
Alcohol is a diuretic and can severely dehydrate you, especially in Las Vegas.
“We see it all the time, especially with out-of-towners. They underestimate the heat, they might still be hungover from the day before and they continue to drink, resulting in severe dehydration,” Dunagan said.
While dehydration doesn’t contribute to the intoxicated feeling, it can make you feel sick the next day. “We used to think we could use IV fluids on really intoxicated patients to help sober them up, but it doesn’t work that way,” Dunagan said. “IV fluids make patients feel better because it hydrates them, but they still have to metabolize the liquor at whatever rate the liver is able to.”
One weekend of drinking shows on medical scans
While chronic drinking often is the cause of serious, long-term liver damage, a one-time weekend bender is not without consequence.
“Perfectly healthy people who hardly drink at all, following a weekend of drinking, will have fatty deposits on their liver show up in CAT scans or ultrasounds. That’s the liver showing the effects of metabolizing all the alcohol,” Dunagan said.
Cancers linked to alcohol abuse
Esophageal cancer, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer