At What Bac Do You Die
Generally, once your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.40 percent or over, it’s dangerous territory. At this level, there’s a risk of coma or death.
In the U.S., driving while intoxicated (DWI) is illegal if you have more than a particular BAC in your system. In some states, this limit can be as low as 0.08 percent; for example, California sets its legal limit at 0.0017 percent. But what happens when we cross that line? How much of our brain function does alcohol use begin to affect? And how do these effects increase with each drink?
The American Medical Association says that drinking any amount of alcohol has health risks. The organization estimates that about 3 million people die annually from the harmful health effects of drinking too much. These include liver disease and cancer, high cholesterol, strokes, hypertension and diabetes. Other research suggests that drinking may also cause memory loss and dementia.
But beyond these generalities, no one knows exactly what happens to us physiologically and neurologically when we drink. We know that alcohol affects neurotransmitters, which are chemicals used by neurons to communicate across synapses. Neurotransmitters help regulate many functions in the body, including breathing, heart rate, digestion, mood, sexual arousal, balance and muscle movement. When we drink, we alter the activity of these neurotransmitters, creating an imbalance among them. Some scientists believe that this change could contribute to depression and anxiety. Others suggest that it might disrupt sleep patterns. Either way, the result is impaired cognition — not only on the night you drank but long after.
When we’re sober, our bodies produce enzymes called acetaldehyde dehydrogenases that break down ethanol (alcohol). Once consumed, alcohol quickly enters into the bloodstream where it is absorbed by the small intestine lining and then distributed throughout the entire body via the blood stream. Within minutes, the liver converts most of the alcohol into acetic acid. This process continues until all alcohol is metabolized. However, our livers cannot completely eliminate alcohol because it takes time for them to work their magic. As such, alcohol accumulates in the blood and tissues.
Alcohol is found naturally in fruits, vegetables and grains like barley and rye. It is extracted through distillation processes that involve heating, condensation and cooling. Humans have been using alcohol for thousands of years. For instance, archaeologists discovered evidence of grape presses, beer brewing and wine production dating back 6,000 years ago in Slovenia. Today, most countries allow the manufacture of alcoholic beverages for personal consumption. Although the history behind alcohol is interesting, the science behind it isn’t nearly so fun. To learn more about the ways alcohol alters our brains and bodies, read the next page.
How Alcohol Works in Our Brains and Bodies
Drinking impairs judgment, slows reaction times and makes coordination difficult. Most people who get caught drunk later say they don’t remember getting there. Researchers call this phenomenon “blackout” or “blacking out.” A blackout means having no recollection of events up to and including blacking out. One possible explanation for why drinkers sometimes claim they don’t remember things is that they actually did experience a blackout but were simply unaware of it. Another theory suggests that people who tend to become blackout-prone are more likely to engage in risky behaviors because they lose track of time and therefore aren’t able to assess whether a given action will lead to harm or benefit [sources: Kiechle et al.; Wiles]. If this sounds like you, ask yourself if you’d feel safe driving home if you had just had one drink. If you answered yes, then you probably shouldn’t drive right now.
Researchers believe that alcohol affects us differently depending upon gender. Women typically drink less than men yet suffer higher rates of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, liver cancer, head injuries and trauma. Men face greater risks of developing prostate cancer, cirrhosis (liver failure), pancreatitis and testicular cancer. Both sexes are susceptible to violence and domestic abuse.
Many studies show that binge drinking (consuming five drinks within two hours) increases the likelihood of accidents and car crashes. This type of heavy drinking causes significant changes in perception, motor skills and reasoning ability. Heavy drinking can impair decision making, reduce judgment and slow response time. Additionally, intoxication leads to poor judgment, poor physical control, slurred speech and inability to follow simple instructions.
Some researchers speculate that alcohol affects us differently based on age. Teenagers seem particularly vulnerable to the negative consequences associated with drunkenness. Teens who consume alcohol report lower grades, poorer study habits and increased absenteeism from school. They also drink more frequently and longer than younger teens. Adults between ages 18 and 34 are more likely to develop alcoholism than other groups. People aged 35 to 44 make up the largest group of new alcoholics each year. Older adults are also at greater risk of dying prematurely due to liver damage caused by chronic alcohol use.
Although alcohol affects each person differently, it appears that genetic factors play a role in susceptibility as well. Scientists have identified several genes that influence the metabolism of alcohol. Polymorphisms (variations of specific gene sequences) exist in the alcohol metabolic pathway. Certain polymorphisms might impact how fast the liver eliminates alcohol, leading to faster or slower accumulation of alcohol levels. An individual’s sensitivity to alcohol also varies according to his or her sex hormones. Estrogens appear to protect against some of the toxic effects of alcohol, whereas progesterone reduces the intoxicating effects.
So far, we’ve looked mainly at the physiological aspects of the interaction between alcohol and the human body. On the next page, we’ll look at the neurological side of things.
What Happened During Prohibition?
Prohibition was enacted in 1920 during the era known as Prohibition. Many historians consider Prohibition a failed experiment, largely because it led to widespread corruption, organized crime and the rise of bootlegging and moonshine. After 10 years of Prohibition, Congress passed the 21st Amendment to repeal the law. The amendment went into effect Dec. 31, 1933, ushering in the end of America’s brief foray into national prohibition.
During Prohibition, the government banned the sale, transportation and manufacturing of alcohol. Despite these laws, Americans continued to consume alcohol in various forms. Since alcohol wasn’t made illegal, people turned to illegally producing alcohol. Bootleggers produced liquor by combining grain spirits, water and yeast in makeshift stills hidden away in barns, garages and basements. Moonshiners distilled illegal mash of corn, potatoes and sugarcane in shacks and outbuildings.
Today, most societies prohibit the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol. Government regulation of alcohol sales is usually accomplished under laws that vary by country and state. Countries and states try to implement policies that maximize public safety without infringing upon personal freedom. Laws regarding the possession and purchase of alcohol differ widely around the world. For instance, Canada allows private ownership of alcohol but prohibits buying it for anyone under 19 years old. Australia allows private ownership of alcohol but restricts its sale to licensed retailers. In the United States, retail stores sell alcohol to those 18 years and older.
Because the brain works hard to maintain stable internal environments, it uses a variety of chemical compounds to keep everything running smoothly. Two of these compounds, dopamine and serotonin, are important in regulating emotions, appetite and sleep cycles. Drinking can cause fluctuations in both of these neurotransmitters. Chronic drinking can even permanently decrease the number of functioning nerve cells in parts of the brain responsible for thinking, learning and memory.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), approximately 22 percent of adult males in the U.S. meet criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD). More women than men receive treatment for AUDs. NIAAA reports that 40 percent of college students admit to feeling the need to cut down on their alcohol intake. Among teenagers, 30 percent of boys and 25 percent of girls admitted to having a drinking problem. According to NIAAA, underage drinking significantly contributes to a range of social problems including family conflict, academic difficulties, unsafe sexual practices, criminal behavior and suicide attempts.
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