Although alcohol consumption is very common, socially accepted and even part of the social culture of many countries, alcohol is a sedative and hypnotic legal drug. In fact, the alcohol that we drink is a mixture of water and ethanol, a colorless volatile flammable chemical substance that depresses the central nervous system.
You might be thinking: why do they say that alcohol depresses the central nervous system if when I drink it, I feel more cheerful and outgoing? The answer is that the effects that alcohol causes in our bodies depends on the amount we consume, the frequency with which we drink it, the degrees of alcohol in the drink and if drinking alcohol is something that we do occasionally or it is a daily habit.
Said in a practical way, to your body is not the same drinking a couple of beers biweekly than drinking a bottle of vodka every day.
When alcohol acts over the central nervous system, it basically slows down your vital functions, which explains why some people drink a beer or a glass of wine as to “loosen up” when they are stressed or depressed.
The first drinks are also accompanied of a sense of euphoria and disinhibition, but soon wears off. People with low tolerance levels to alcohol can experience these effects after having just one drink. However, people who frequently drinks alcohol need to drink more drinks to experience the same effects.
In most cases, when alcohol is consumed in social circumstances (occasionally) and at low doses, it has low levels of immediate risk because you usually experience slurred speech, unsteady movement, slow reactions, impaired hearing and vision, decreased sensitivity, problems to perceive reality, inability to establish a reasonable judgment and think rationally and digestive symptoms like vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.
You might be thinking that these effects are harmless, but if you experience them, it means that alcohol is already taking effect on your body, including your brain. So, as you have many vital functions suppressed, you can suffer from mild to severe injuries after falls or decreased sensitivity, motor vehicle crashes, drownings, burns, homicide or suicide from disinhibition, being victim of sexual assault, unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV), miscarriage, stillbirth, among others.
The real problem is that around 44.0% of Australians aged 18 years and over usually exceed the number of drinks recommended per occasion to reduce the risk of suffering an alcohol-related injury, which are 2 standard drinks per occasion. The new guidelines say that drinking 4 standard drinks per occasion more than doubles your risk of injury in the following 6 hours. This "excess of drinks" was higher in young men (18-24 years).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of the term "Heavy Drinking" for women who consume more than 8 drinks per week and men who consume more than 15 drinks per week. At this point is also important to say that any alcohol consumption in pregnant women and any alcohol consumption in people under 21 years is considered excessive by the CDC.
Some people are used to chronically drink alcohol and at levels that increase their risk of developing different irreversible health conditions.
One long-term consequence of a chronic consumption of alcohol is developing an increased tolerance to it. This is because your brain and body "adjust" to the alcohol, so you will need to consume more and more alcohol to experience the same effects that unusual drinkers experience with just one or two consumptions.
The main problem is that consuming a higher amount of alcohol, also increases your risk of suffering an alcohol poisoning and overdose, which can lead to death. Likewise, consuming higher amounts of alcohol carries a higher risk of suffering the short-term injuries mentioned above.
Another important fact of chronic alcohol consumption is that people accustomed to drink alcohol can experience potentially harmful withdrawal symptoms when stopping drinking. In fact, there is a common symptom of this condition called delirium tremens (DTs), considered a medical emergency because it can cause the patient's death in hours if it is not treated properly and promptly.
It also increases the risk of developing chronic diseases like Diabetes by pancreatic damage and insulin sensitivity reduction, liver damage (alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis and
liver cancer), chronic high blood pressure by heart, kidneys and arteries damage, stomach and intestinal ulcers and other digestive problems.
Likewise, alcoholic people have a higher risk of suffering a stroke, a heart attack and different types of cancer, including cancer of the mouth, throat, breast, liver and colon.
Chronic alcohol consumption can cause lasting brain damage because it is a neurotoxic substance. So, people who usually drink a high amount of alcohol have a decreased brain mass. All that increases the risk of developing a severe condition very similar to Alzheimer’s disease. In young people, the brain damage causes memory problems and learning difficulties, what usually ends in poor school performance and eventually school dropout.
There are also some important consequences of alcoholism that involve the mental health and social problems. People who is chronically exposed to alcohol is more prone to develop depression or anxiety disorders, which is a vicious circle, since some people start to drink to "forget their problems" or avoid the reality.
Although it might sound crazy, an important measure that counsellors and GP's can use to reduce the excessive alcohol consumption is talking with their patients in their consults about it.
For example, it is important to talk with the pediatric patients and their fathers about the importance of avoiding drinking alcohol before 18 years. This is because at these ages, the brain and other structures of the central nervous system are still being developed, and as we said before, alcohol is a neurotoxic, so the brain and surrounding structures get damaged before finishing its development.
Likewise, GP's and gynecologists must talk with pregnant and breastfeeding women about the importance of avoiding alcohol since it can cross the placenta and cause damage to the baby before birth or it can reach breast milk and cause damage to the newborn.
On the other hand, GP's and internists must talk with adults about the consequences of chronically drinking alcohol, the diseases that its heavy consumption can cause and the way it could make existing diseases worse.
In conclusion, it is always necessary to find a balance in our lives. Having a social drink, occasionally, it is usually not a problem. But, when it becomes a habit, it can cause a lot of undesired side effects that affect your health in the short and the long term.
Since 2010, the alcohol consumption in Australia have decreased and continues declining with the past of the time. This could be due to the effect of the campaigns destined to avoid the excessive alcohol consumption.
Be responsible when you drink alcohol to avoid a bad experience.
1.- World Health Organization. (2015). List of countries by alcohol consumption per capita. Global Health Observatory (GHO) data. Available at: https://www.who.int/gho/alcohol/consumption_levels/adult_recorded_percapita/en/
2.- Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2015). National Health Survey: First Results, 2014-15. Alcohol Consumption. Available at: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4364.0.55.001~2014-15~Main%20Features~Alcohol%20consumption~25
3.- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - CDC. (2018). Alcohol Use and Your Health. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
4.- Alcohol and Drug Foundation. (2017). Guidelines for low-risk drinking. Available at: https://adf.org.au/insights/guidelines-for-low-risk-drinking/