Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that has been consumed in drinks for most of human history. In chemistry, the term alcohol refers to a whole class of organic compounds that include a hydroxyl group – consisting of an oxygen atom and a hydrogen atom – bonded to a carbon atom. In common parlance, however, the word alcohol usually refers to a specific chemical with the formula C2H5OH, which chemists call ethanol.
Alcohol is produced naturally when yeasts ferment sugars to generate energy, and some animals that eat a lot of fruit or nectar have evolved to metabolise it. Chemical evidence from fragments of pottery in China suggests that humans began brewing alcoholic drinks at least 9000 years ago.
Although Homer Simpson’s description of alcohol is “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems” may not be entirely accurate, it encapsulates the drug’s ability to make people feel either very good or very bad. The individual involved, the amount of alcohol consumed and the social context all play a role in determining what effects it can have.
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more standard drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in about two hours. Scientific research has shown that alcohol consumption at that level can do real damage to health. It is associated with:
Attention and memory problems
Increased risk of injuries
High blood pressure
Cancer’s like, breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver and colon
When you ingest even a small amount of alcohol, your body reacts in several ways:
Brain: Alcohol slows down the chemicals and pathways your brain uses to control your body, altering mood, slowing down reflexes and affecting balance. It also can contribute to learning, memory, and sleep problems.
Heart: Alcohol increases your heart rate and expands your blood vessels, making more blood flow to the skin (which causes you to feel warm), however, this heat passes out through the skin, causing body temperature to fall after it has risen.
Digestive: Alcohol is first broken down in the stomach, promoting an increase in digestive juices. Alcohol also irritates the small intestine and colon where it is further broken down and absorbed, and it also can affect the normal speed that food moves through them, which may result in abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
Kidney: Alcohol dries out (i.e., dehydrates) the body, which can affect the kidneys and the body’s ability to regulate fluid and electrolytes. It also disrupts hormones that affect kidney function.
Liver: Alcohol—most of it, in fact—is metabolised in the liver, which filters circulating blood and removes and destroys toxic substances, including alcohol. The liver can handle a certain amount of alcohol, but as a person continues to drink, it can become stressed to the point of causing permanent damage.
Drinking excessively within a short period of time, or binge drinking, increases the stress on your body and internal organs (and can result in feeling a hangover following a drinking session). High levels of alcohol in your body can result in headaches, severe dehydration, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and indigestion.
Excessive alcohol use on a single occasion can also put you at risk of alcohol poisoning. This can occur when your body is overwhelmed by the amount of alcohol you drank and is no longer able to effectively process it from your system. Therefore, if you engage in binge drinking—even occasionally—you may not have an alcohol use disorder, but your drinking is considered hazardous. Even a temporary break from alcohol consumption, be it a month, as promoted by the Dry January campaign, or just introducing alcohol-free days, can have huge health benefits, such as lowering high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes risk.
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