Alcohol affects the body in many ways, the most obvious being the physical effects of intoxication. Responsible Service of Alcohol teaches us how to determine intoxication, but how is alcohol actually affecting our bodies?
Alcohol is made of very small molecules; these are then absorbed into the bloodstream. Normally, this takes place in the small intestine; however, if you were to fill your mouth with a nip of whisky without swallowing it, the alcohol would still be absorbed into your blood through the lining of your mouth. Cell membranes are highly permeable to alcohol, so once alcohol is in the bloodstream, it can diffuse into nearly every tissue of the body. Meaning that misuse of alcohol can damage a variety of different organs in the body.
Generally, alcohol is consumed orally and is swallowed down into the stomach. The stomach’s role is to break down food and drink before passing it to the small intestine. Therefore, if there is no food in the stomach then the alcohol passes more quickly into the small intestine, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Alcohol then circulates around the body until it reaches the brain, taking approximately 5 minutes to do so. Once the alcohol reaches the brain, it begins to depress the functions of the brain, starting with the part of the brain that controls inhibitions and judgement. Thus, presenting the obvious signs of intoxication that Responsible Service of Alcohol teaches us.
If however there is food in the stomach, alcohol will mix with the food before passing to the small intestine. This mixing with food slows down the alcohol absorption. Though this process is only slowed, this does not prevent intoxication from occurring. Eventually, all of the alcohol consumed will be absorbed into the blood and will travel around the body, affecting other body functioning.
Alcohol in the bloodstream will reach the liver in approximately 20 minutes. The liver then processes the alcohol – breaking it down, neutralizing and removing it from the body. In general, the liver breaks down alcohol at the rate of around 8 grams of alcohol per hour.
The amount of alcohol in the blood is determined by quantity and type of alcohol consumed, speed of drinking, whether or not there is food in the stomach, and a variety of other factors. The immediate effects of drinking depend upon the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream – the blood alcohol concentration (BAC). BAC varies according to a person’s sex, weight, body composition and speed of drinking. Women tend to have a slightly higher BAC than men, after drinking the same amount, because they have less body fluid to dilute the alcohol.
Small amounts of alcohol (less than 10%) are eliminated from the body in urine, breath and sweat. The rest is oxidized – this means, like food, it combines with oxygen in the blood to release heat, energy or calories. However, although alcohol has some nutritional value, it is of poor quality because it lacks vitamins, proteins and other nutrients. Also, unlike food, alcohol is metabolized almost exclusively by the liver. This means that the liver is one of the first parts of the body to suffer the harmful effects of heavy drinking.
This generally means that when drinking the same amount of alcohol:
Women are more affected than Men
A Small person is more affected than a Big person
A Person who has empty stomach is more affected than a Person who has eaten a big meal
And because the body builds up a tolerance to alcohol:
- A Person who drinks rarely will appear more affected than a Person who drinks regularly
Knowing how intoxication occurs is just as important as being able to identify the signs of intoxication. Responsible service of alcohol requires us to not only be able to assist intoxicated patrons, but to be able to instil strategies to prevent intoxication in the first place.