Alcohol mostly consists of ethanol. When we consume alcohol there is a process called detoxification of ethanol which begins in the body. Let us understand how it works and decide for ourselves. Is alcohol consumption good for health?
As soon as we consume alcohol, it appears everywhere in our body. That is because it is able to quickly enter into our blood stream. The absorption begins from the mouth. We shall also see how alcohol affects the brain, liver and muscles. As an interesting add-on we shall also see how the breathalyser held with traffic police works, long after we have consumed our drinks.
Absorption in the mouth and stomach
Our tongue lining and cheek is kept moist all the time due to secretion of mucus. Once alcohol comes in contact with the mucus a small percentage of it enters the glands which secrete the mucus allowing ethanol to enter the blood. This is how in some situations people get high at the first sip.
After that the alcohol goes to the stomach. At the bottom of the stomach is the Pylorus which is literally called the gatekeeper. If you have food in the stomach, this value remains closed and alcohol remains in the stomach for a long time mixing with food which is getting digested. But if you are drinking on an empty stomach, the gatekeeper is open allowing a lot of alcohol to enter into the small intestine. Once inside the small intestine, it gets quickly absorbed into the blood.
The inner lining of the stomach secretes mucus which helps protect the inner lining of the stomach from acidic digestive juices. This mucus absorbs alcohol and allows the entry of alcohol into the blood.
What happens at the intestines
Small intestines are directly connected to blood. This has been designed so that glucose which is digested is released to the blood for energy. Most of the alcohol gets into the blood from the small intestine and from there it is send to the liver for processing.
Liver processes all the toxins
Liver is the largest and the most fascinating organ in the body. It is also the only organ which is capable of regenerating itself. This capability has been specially granted to the liver because it handles all the toxins that enter into your body. Alcohol is mostly processed by the liver in a two step process.
Ethanol is first brought to the liver by the blood. In the first step, the enzyme ADH is created by the liver which removes two hydrogen atoms from each alcohol molecule one by one. This converts ethanol to acetaldehyde which is more toxic than ethanol. The liver then releases another enzyme called ALDH which converts acetaldehyde to acetate, again by removing hydrogen. This newly created hydrogen has to be also disposed off by the liver. Acetate is further broken down into carbon dioxide and water outside the liver.
Now here is what all factors are at play. The ability of liver to process ethanol is directly related to the ability of the liver to create both the enzymes ADH and ALDH. That varies from person to person and age too. A healthy liver can produce these enzymes faster. But for people who are addicted to chronic alcohol consumption this process is painfully slow. Also acetaldehyde is toxic and reacts with tissues causing damage in the liver where it is temporarily stored. Acetaldehyde also causes tissue damage where ever alcohol is processed like brain, pancreas and gastrointestinal tract.
This is the reason why alcohol consumed in small amounts does relatively less harm. Because your liver is able to detoxify and neutralize all the ethanol from the blood before acetaldehyde can begin damaging tissues.
But what if we consume more of the alcohol, much more than the liver is able to process.
Ethanol enters the blood
While alcohol is being process by the liver, a lot of it gets released into the blood. From here it goes all over the body and affects almost all the parts except maybe the bones. But for the scope of the article we shall focus on the following.
Alcohol on your breath
When alcohol laced blood reaches your lungs, we have tiny hollow air sacks inside the lungs which get filled up with ethanol. Evaporation of ethanol occurs in the hollow space of the lungs and then it goes up the air pipe to appear on your breath. Our body is literally evaporating ethanol from your breath. This process also happens slowly. It is these tiny amounts of ethanol in our breath that are caught by the breathalyser. Once alcohol enters into our blood, no matter how much food you eat or time pass by, it is always found by the alcohol tester.
Relation between alcohol and muscles
There is a relatively unknown connection between alcohol consumption and muscle cramps. Sometimes the cramps can get painful. But the real question is how does alcohol affects muscles long after it is consumed.
Muscle building and breaking down is a continuous process. Amino acids are used to build muscle tissues. To trigger the building process, certain signals have to be transmitted for release of amino acids. Alcohol disrupts these signals and affects protein synthesis. This prevents the re-building of muscles.
Studies reveal that protein synthesis is largely affected only in men.
Alcohol enters the brain
It is at the brain that most of the alcohol damage happens. Alcohol ups the heart rate leading to it reaching the brain faster than any other place. Once inside the brain, it affects the grey matter which contains the neuron network and neurotransmitters.
You get a sense of pleasure, euphoria, lower inhibitions, lower cognitive abilities and lower reflexes. We all are familiar with these feelings.
Lowered inhibitions allow you to do things which you normally won’t do. But after you are drunk, it becomes a necessity to do something. Your choice making ability is gone. Instead it is replaced with a compulsion to do something outrageous.
Disruption of the hormonal system
Inside our brain is the hypothalamus which is the master regulator of all hormonal activity in our body. Hypothalamus communicates with another gland called pituitary gland which is responsible for controlling growth, metabolism, reproduction and many more. The connection between both these glands is the hormonal info highway inside the brain controlling many functions of our body.
Once ethanol enters the body, the hypothalamus starts working trying to balance the effects of ethanol all over the body. Sustained alcohol consumption disrupts the hormonal balance affecting many body functions.
One of the most important organ which is affected by the hormonal imbalance is the kidney. Pituitary gland starts affecting the anti diuretic hormone or ADH. As ADH is lowered, you start getting rid of more fluids. Kidney starts dropping more electrolyte via urine. This is the main reason to feel dehydrated.
Medical fraternity has not been able to fully understand a hangover. We know what it does but not too many solutions are available except that you allow it to wear off on its own.
Due to inhibition of kidneys, we urinate a lot and get dehydrated. Many people love to drink a glass of lemonade first thing in the morning after a hangover to assist re-hydration.
You will feel tired and lack of sleep. You will have a loss of appetite which is why you crave for a carb heavy meal right after the hangover wear off. This is what leads to weight gain in case of regular drinkers.
Bad news for women
Female bodies have higher body fat percentage than men. That means they have lesser amount of blood in their body. The damage done by ethanol therefore is more pronounced in women than men. Women also have a more delicate hormonal balance which get disrupted by alcohol.
Now is the right time to QUIT.