Local pharmacists talk about the bodily effects of alcohol


Local pharmacists talk about the bodily effects of alcohol.

By Martin Faridian and Tara Storjohann


Alcohol and the Body

Question: What happens when I drink alcohol?

When you drink alcohol, it’s absorbed in the stomach and distributed to other to parts of the body through the bloodstream. One of the first things you’ll notice is a slight euphoria or buzz. This is because alcohol is a very small molecule that is able to cross the blood-brain barrier in the central nervous system. Therefore, alcohol can affect your body from head to toe, even causing birth defects for pregnant women.

As the blood-alcohol content (BAC) rises, the effects on the body intensify, especially in the pre-frontal cortex. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain affected by alcohol that reduces energy levels and calms the body. Your speech begins to slur, reflexes are slower, decision making becomes impaired, balance becomes harder to maintain, and eventually you blackout because the alcohol temporarily prevents your brain from making memories. This is why it’s especially important to utilize a designated driver if you plan on drinking. At very high levels, alcohol becomes fatal because it disrupts the medulla, the portion of the brain that regulates breathing.

Alcohol also affects other parts of your body like the intestinal tract, kidneys, and pancreas. Alcohol can damage the lining of the stomach and esophagus, leading to diarrhea, inflammation of the stomach lining, acid reflux, and ulcers. Excessive alcohol use can cause the pancreas to become inflamed and produce toxic chemicals. The pancreas is responsible for insulin release and when it is damaged, the risk of high and low blood sugar increases. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver by alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) enzymes. Genetic factors determine the amount of ADH and ALDH2 enzymes. Those with fewer enzymes are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol such as facial flushing, headache, and loss of balance. After the body metabolizes alcohol, the kidneys excrete it. Alcohol is a diuretic, which can cause more frequent urination and dehydration

Question: What can help with a hangover?

A hangover is a result of many factors. It can affect each person differently due to body weight, rate of drinking, and genetic composition. Common symptoms include dizziness, headache, irritability, fatigue, and upset stomach. In addition to the physical symptoms, some people experience elevated levels of anxiety, shame, embarrassment, and depression. Alcohol is a toxin, and a hangover is the body’s way of recovering. The most pronounced effect is dehydration. While pain relievers can be used to treat certain symptoms of a hangover (e.g., headache and pain), they should be used with extreme caution. Pain relievers containing acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be metabolized into a toxic compound if there is alcohol in your system. Pain relievers containing ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) can increase the risk of developing stomach ulcers if there is alcohol in your system. Coffee may make you feel more awake and alert but it causes dehydration, which may worsen your symptoms.

Rest helps the body recover naturally. Hydration with electrolyte fluids such as Pedialyte can help restore your body’s supply of vitamins and minerals. Eating bland food in the BRAT diet (bread, rice, applesauce, and toast) can help ease upset stomach and provide nourishment for the body. Rest, hydration, and adequate food and vitamin intake before drinking can also lessen the effects of a hangover the next day.

Question: I’ve heard alcohol has health benefits?

Drinking in moderation has shown to decrease bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol. One drink per day for females and two drinks per day for males was the maximum dose correlated with positive health benefits. Red wine, in particular, contains resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant that helps decrease plaque formation in the blood vessels. The diagram below features the equivalence of “one drink” among the different types of alcohol.

On the other hand, alcohol interacts with several medications. In addition, alcohol turns into sugar in the body and can cause other problems for the heart, brain, and body. Therefore, the American Heart Association does not recommend drinking alcohol to impact your cholesterol levels; instead, they recommend increased exercise paired with increased intake of fruits and vegetables in your diet. Please speak to your primary care provider before implementing any changes in your diet or lifestyle.




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