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The Biology of a Bender

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We humans love our libations: after a long work week, lots of us decide to unwind with a drink or two. (For some of us, it might be even more than two.) What happens after we take that drink? Here’s a brief overview of ethanol’s effect on the body.

Pick Your Poison

Absorption of alcohol starts even before we take our first swallow. Ethanol enters through the blood vessels in the mouth, throat, and (primarily) the stomach, which is why what and how much we eat affects how fast we feel the effects of our drinks. The liver gets first crack at this blood, which is a good thing – one of the liver’s many jobs, of course, is to remove toxins of all sorts in order to protect the rest of the body. You may want that alcohol (or recreational drug, or pill for your headache) to get to your brain, but to the liver, these are poisons. Unfortunately, the liver isn’t prepared to handle a lot of alcohol quickly, so if you’ve had more than a few sips, some of the ethanol is going to make it through.

Going to Your Head

The body takes care of its most important organs first. Of primary importance is the brain, which hogs about 20% of our body’s total oxygen, and about 30% of our caloric intake daily. Therefore, after its scrubbing by the liver, the nutrient rich blood heads for the lungs, and then the brain. All well and good if you’ve had a healthy meal, but a bit of a problem if you’ve had, say, two shots of bourbon on an empty stomach.

If you do have enough alcohol in your bloodstream to overpower the liver’s best efforts, the evidence is going show up on your breath. Since ethanol is volatile enough to evaporate from the blood into the warm, moist air of your lungs, a little bit gets expelled when you exhale. Thanks to Dr. Robert Borkenstein, inventor of the breathalyzer, we’ve been able to use this phenomenon to get drunk drivers off the road since 1954.

The brain itself is protected from viruses, bacteria, and other undesirables in the bloodstream by a blood brain barrier, but ethanol has no problem reaching brain cells. Every system in the brain gets put out of commission by the effects of alcohol. A pickled prefrontal cortex means you forgo good judgement, while a sodden hypothalamus “forgets” to make the hormone that prevents you from urinating all the time (and you were blaming watery beer). The voluntary muscle control centers in your cerebellum can’t keep you from staggering into walls. And your emotional control center (the limbic system)? Forget it. You’re either euphoric, angry, or a weepy mess. Have more than a few and it gets worse, since an alcohol soaked medulla is going to slow your heart rate and breathing. Your body eventually decides something’s trying to kill you, and it rebels. Up it comes, and out you go – your body vomits out the toxic stuff, and you pass out.

The Party’s Over

Morning comes – and with it, the hangover. There’s almost as many theories of why we get hangovers as there are surefire hangover “cures.” You’re certainly dehydrated, and you’re nauseous from an irritated stomach and intestines. Circulating in the bloodstream are high levels of acetaldehyde, a byproduct of alcohol metabolism that’s more toxic than the ethanol itself. You’re exhausted, since the alcohol the night before inhibited production of the natural stimulant glutamine, and your body made up for for its depleted stores while you “slept it off.” These high levels of glutamine kept you from really getting any quality sleep at all. If you had a dark liquor or red wine, you also have congeners (byproducts of alcoholic fermentation) like methanol floating around. When the body tries to break down the methanol, you get…formaldehyde.

Talk about being pickled…

Written by Jen Szymanski

August 31, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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