Health Talk: Alcohol metabolization
Partying, and consequently alcohol, has always been a large part of college life. But while you are partying, your body remains at work processing and removing the alcohol from your body. This issue of Health Talk discusses how the body deals with alcohol and how it is ultimately flushed out of the body.
The familiar alcohol in drinks is actually an organic compound known as ethanol; alcoholic drinks are made when it is mixed with water and other ingredients. As soon as it is ingested, it starts being absorbed.
Taking a sip of vodka allows alcohol to pass through the lining of the mouth and throat and be absorbed by blood vessels even before it reaches the stomach.
Since alcohol is a small and simple molecule, it does not need to be broken down before being taken in by the bloodstream; it flows in by diffusion.
Alcohol can also be absorbed through the stomach, but in reality, most of the alcohol is taken up through the small intestine. This is the basis for the “eat before you drink” doctrine; eating beforehand tells the stomach not to release its contents to the intestine, as the food needs to be digested and broken down into smaller particles before it can be absorbed.
Because the alcohol is blocked from entering the small intestine, it is not absorbed as quickly. The idea that bread “absorbs” alcohol, like a sponge, is not actually true; eating only delays the process.
The small intestine is designed to absorb chemicals from food and pass them into the bloodstream. The alcohol is carried through the bloodstream to the liver, where it is further processed.
Once absorbed, the liver metabolizes the alcohol with the help of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. Alcohol is converted into an acetaldehyde, and then further converted to acetic acid, which is harmless to the body. Acetic acid is further broken down into carbon dioxide and water and is released from the body.
An intolerance for alcohol is caused by an nonfunctional version of alcohol dehydrogenase. However, the liver can only process a certain amount of alcohol at one time; the rest remains in the body and is what causes the effects of drunkenness. The unprocessed alcohol in the bloodstream travels toward the brain. The brain is usually is protected from unwanted chemicals by a barrier called the blood- brain barrier. However, alcohol is allowed to pass into the brain because of its molecular shape.
The alcohol reaches the brain and affects the different lobes that are responsible for functions like judgment, balance, and speech.
These effects of alcohol on the brain give rise to the personality change often seen in intoxicated people.
The morning-after result of intoxication — a hangover — is caused by many factors, including dehydration and the type of alcohol drunk. However, the belief “liquor before beer, never fear,” may not be entirely accurate; there is no evidence to show that order has any effect on the feeling one has the next morning.
In fact, it is thought that congeners are one of the causes of hangovers. Congeners — toxins produced during the fermentation process of making alcohols — are found in liquor, and darker liquors have more than lighter liquors.
Other factors giving rise to hangovers are the amount drunk and the pace at which one drinks. However, it is difficult to judge what would cause a bad hangover and what would not. Hence, the best way to avoid a hangover is to limit consumption.
While possibly the most common drug among college students, alcohol’s danger is easily the most overlooked.
It is not easy to abstain from drinking forever in college, and drinking with restraint is the best way to stay safe.