What Happens to Your Body When You Drink Too Much Alcohol?
By Dr. Mercola
Some people believe that an occasional glass of red wine can benefit your health. Regardless of the merits of this view, too much red wine is a recipe for disaster.
Alcohol can impair decision-making abilities and motor skills. It is frequently a factor in vehicular accidents, violent behaviors, unplanned pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to the lethal danger of alcohol poisoning, too, which negatively impacts your health and may even cost you your life if it’s not properly addressed.
In the United States alone, there are estimatedly 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) reported yearly from 2006 to 2010 due to alcohol poisoning, hacking off an average of 30 years on the lives of those who died. 1
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning impairs the body and eventually can shut down the areas of the brain that control basic life-support functions like breathing, heart rate, and temperature control.2
You become more susceptible to alcohol poisoning when you:
- Binge drink, or consume four or more (women) or 5 or more (men) alcoholic beverages in a single occasion.
- Drink heavily, or consume eight or more (women) or 15 or more (men) alcoholic beverages per week.
- Drink during pregnancy. No amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy due to risks of passing alcohol toxicity through the placenta to your unborn child, which can cause severe damages at any stage of pregnancy.
- Drink under the age of 21. Underage drinkers are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning as studies have shown that they typically consume about five drinks in a single occasion.
Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms
Alcohol poisoning comes with very serious health penalties, which is why it’s very important to be well-informed about what symptoms you need to watch out for. Below are some of the most common telltale signs of alcohol poisoning:3
Loss of coordination Cold, clammy hands, and bluish skin due to hypothermia Vomiting repeatedly and/or uncontrollably Irregular or slow breathing (less than eight breaths per minute or more than 10 seconds between breaths) Seizures Confusion, unconsciousness, stupor (or conscious but unresponsive), and sometimes coma
If you notice any of these symptoms, call 911 for help immediately.
Alcohol Poisoning Risk Factors
Generally, women are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning. They feel the effects of alcohol faster than men of the same size. Unfortunately, they’re also more predisposed to suffer from long-term alcohol-induced damage in the body. This is due to several physiological reasons, such as: 4
- Poor ability to dilute alcohol because they have lower body water percentage in the body. The average female only has 52 percent while the average male has 61 percent.
- Poor ability to metabolize alcohol because they have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme designed to break down alcohol in the body, than men.
- Hormones. Premenstrual hormone changes tend to make women get intoxicated more rapidly during the days before their period. Birth control pills and other estrogen-containing medications, on the other hand, slow down the excretion of alcohol from the body.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that men are completely safe from the dangers of alcohol poisoning. Below are a number of other factors that affect your body’s response to alcohol, regardless if you’re male or female:
Food The peak blood alcohol concentration level can be three times higher in people who drink with an empty stomach than in those who had a decent meal before drinking. Food plays a significant role in alcohol absorption in the body because it dilutes the alcohol while slowing down the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine where alcohol is absorbed. Asian ethnicity Approximately 50 percent of Asians have trouble metabolizing alcohol due to a missing liver enzyme needed to process the substance. Existing health conditions People with diabetes should be wary of alcohol because it can cause a sudden surge and a dangerous drop in their blood sugar levels. Drinking alcohol may also prevent diabetes prescription drugs from working properly. Prescription drugs Medications can potentially dull the effects of alcohol, which in turn causes you to drink more than what your body can truly handle.
How much water you drink, how often you drink, your age, and your family history are potential risk factors as well.
Blood Alcohol Content: How Much Is Too Much?
Blood alcohol content (BAC), also called blood alcohol concentration, refers to the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream. It is expressed as the weight of ethanol measured in grams in 100 milliliters of blood or 210 liters of breath. BAC can be measured either through a breathalyzer test, a blood test, or a urine test.
For example, a BAC of 0.10 means that 0.10% (one-tenth of one percent) of your blood, by volume, is alcohol. All 50 states have now set .08% BAC as the legal limit for Driving Under the Influence (DUI). For commercial drivers, a BAC of .04% can result in a DUI conviction nationwide. For those under age 21, there is a zero tolerance limit―any amount of alcohol is grounds for a DUI arrest.5
To calculate your current blood alcohol content, there are free online sites and apps you can try like BloodCalculator.org and iDrinkSmarter. BAC results may vary depending on several variables, which include your gender, personal alcohol tolerance, body weight, and body fat percentage.6
How Much Alcohol Is in Your Drink?
As far as the Standard Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 is concerned, moderate drinking is having no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.
Basically, a standard drink contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol, which is usually found in:7
- 12 ounces of beer (five percent alcohol)
- Eight ounces of malt liquor (seven percent alcohol)
- Five ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol)
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor like gin, rum, vodka, and whiskey (40 percent alcohol)
Various brands and types of alcoholic beverages come with different alcohol content levels. To have an idea how much alcohol your favorite drink contains, check out this chart below: 8
TYPE OF DRINK AVERAGE ALCOHOL PERCENTAGE BY VOLUME LAGERS: LIGHT 4.2 percent REGULAR 4.5 percent ICE 5.5 percent ALES 4.5 percent PORTER/STOUTS 6.5 percent WINES: CHARDONNAY 12.5 percent OTHER WHITE WINES 10 percent RED WINE 13 percent VODKA 40 percent GIN 42.5 percent RUM 45 percent TEQUILA 45 percent BRANDY 42 percent WHISKEY 50 percent
As a rule of thumb, darker and bitter beers have higher alcohol content. Red wines, on the other hand, have higher alcohol content than white wines, except for chardonnay. Also, sweeter wines have less alcohol content. Meanwhile, all clear liquors have 40 percent alcohol content except for grain alcohol. While darker liquors have more alcohol content, like red wine, sweeter variants have less.
If left untreated, a person suffering from alcohol poisoning can:9
- Choke on his/her own vomit
- Be severely dehydrated, which can cause seizures, permanent brain damage, and even death
- Have slow and irregular breathing, which can eventually stop
- Have irregular heartbeats, which can eventually stop
- Have hypothermia
- Have hypoglycemia (extremely low blood sugar), which can lead to seizures
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol in Women
Because a woman’s body has less tolerance for alcohol compared to men, it’s more susceptible to the damaging effects of alcohol poisoning. Numerous studies have linked these health consequences to excessive drinking in women, which include:
- Disrupted menstrual cycle10
- Increased risk of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery11
- Higher risk of liver cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases compared to men12
- Memory loss and brain shrinkage13
- Increased risk of mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast cancer14
Alcohol is also a common risk factor in many cases of sexual assault, particularly among young women. About 1 in 20 college women are sexually assaulted each year, and research suggests that there is a higher likelihood of rape or sexual assault when both the victim and the attacker are under the influence of alcohol before the incident.15,16
Dos and Don’ts for Someone Suspected with Alcohol Poisoning
It is not something to be ignored in belief that it will pass and go away the following day. If you believe that someone you know could be suffering from alcohol poisoning, here are some steps that you can do and avoid doing to comfort them while waiting for help:
- Make sure they remain conscious
- Keep them hydrated by giving them water
- Keep them warm
- Stay with them and never leave them alone
- Monitor their symptoms
- Ensure they lie on their side so they won’t choke on their own vomit
- Tell them to sleep it off. The blood alcohol content can continue to rise even when they’re not drinking.
- Give them coffee. This will further dehydrate the person.
- Instruct them to walk around. This may only cause falls and bumps, which may result in serious injuries, given the brain’s unfit condition.
- Ask them to take a cold shower. Alcohol lowers your body temperature, and making them feel colder than they already feel could lead to hypothermia.
Lastly, don’t wait for all the symptoms of alcohol poisoning to show up and don’t hesitate to call for emergency medical help immediately. Remember, BAC levels can rise rapidly, and time is of the essence in this situation. Being a minute too late could mean irreversible damage or even death.
How to Prevent Alcohol Poisoning
It does not take rocket science to know how you can prevent yourself or your friends from suffering from alcohol poisoning. I believe the first step, and probably the most important one, that you can take is to practice self-control. Avoid and discourage your friends from participating in any alcohol drinking challenge, which is a surefire way to get alcohol poisoning.
However, if you really must have a few drinks, I personally recommend taking this natural protocol beforehand to pretox your body:
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) Take at least 200 milligrams of NAC 30 minutes before you drink to help lessen alcohol’s toxic effects. NAC increases glutathione and reducesacetaldehyde toxicity that causes many hangover symptoms. B vitamins Alcohol depletes essential B vitamins, which help to eliminate it from the body. NAC is thought to work even better when combined with thiamine, or vitamin B1. Milk thistle Milk thistle contains silymarin and silybin, antioxidants that are known to help protect the liver from toxins, including the effects of alcohol. Not only has silymarin been found to increase glutathione, but it also may help to regenerate liver cells. Vitamin C Alcohol may deplete your body of vitamin C, which is important for reducing alcohol-induced oxidative stress in your liver. Make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of vitamin C, either through supplements or citrus fruits, before taking any alcoholic beverage. Magnesium Magnesium is another nutrient depleted by alcohol, and it’s one that many are already deficient in. Plus, magnesium has anti-inflammatory properties that may help to reduce some hangover symptoms. If you don’t eat a lot of magnesium-rich foods, taking a magnesium supplement before an evening involving drinking may be helpful.
These pretox measures are imperative for supplying your body with the vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients to protect your liver and assist in the breakdown and removal of alcohol from your system.
Other practical measures that may help include:
- Staying hydrated – Drink a glass of water along with each alcoholic beverage to help prevent dehydration. At bedtime, drink another large glass of water or two to help stave off hangover symptoms in the morning.
- Eating before and during drinking – If your stomach is empty, it will speed up the alcohol’s rate of absorption into your body. It may also cause severe stomach irritation. Make it a point to eat a meal before you drink alcohol and nibble on satisfying snacks (such as cheese) while you drink. At the very least, try this old piece of wisdom from the Mediterranean region: take a spoonful of olive oil before drinking alcohol to help prevent a hangover.
- Replenishing electrolytes – Try drinking coconut water before you go to bed to help reduce hangover symptoms in the morning.
- Sticking with clear alcohol – Generally, clear liquors (vodka, gin, or white wine) will contain fewer congeners than darker varieties (brandy or whiskey).
- Stopping once you feel buzzed – When you feel buzzed, it’s a sign that your body’s detoxification pathways are becoming overwhelmed. Take a break from drinking, or quit for the day entirely, to allow your body to metabolize the alcohol effectively.
In addition, I also advise against drinking when you’re feeling down, or worse, depressed, as this can only lead to unconscious and uncontrolled alcohol consumption. Note that alcohol can actually alter your brain chemistry and lower the levels of serotonin, a mood-regulating chemical in your brain, increasing your anxiety and stress instead of reducing it.
Rather than falling into the vicious cycle of alcohol abuse, I recommend addressing your emotional health as soon as possible. Try Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is one of the most effective energy psychology tools for me.
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