What is alcohol?

Alcohol is a drug…as simple as that.

Readers may think they know all there is to know about this subject, but just in case they have forgotten it all, in the middle of the summer heat, the holidays, the parties, the wonderful (not even expensive) Portuguese wine, I will refresh your memories!

The term alcohol refers to ethanol, a psychoactive drug that is relevant in alcoholic beverages and is produced by the fermentation of grains and fruits when yeast acts upon certain ingredients they contain.

Alcohol, besides being found in alcoholic beverages, has a long history of uses worldwide, such as fuel and also for scientific, medical and industrial purposes.
As everything else, it is good and bad, depending on how it is used!

Alcohol effects

Although the amount of alcohol consumed determines the type of effect, it is classified as a depressant, meaning that it slows down vital functions, resulting in slurred speech, unsteady movements, disturbed perception and an inability to react quickly.

As for how it affects the mind, it is best understood as a drug that reduces a person’s ability to think rationally and distorts the judgment capacity.

Most people drink for the initial “stimulant” effect, to “loosen up”, as in low doses it causes euphoria, reduces anxiety and improves sociability. But the problem is that in higher doses, if a person consumes more than the body can handle, it causes intoxication and they then experience severe depressant effects and start to feel “stupid”, lose coordination and control (drunkenness). There is inability to feel pain, toxicity where the body vomits the poison, stupor and, finally, unconsciousness. Extreme levels of alcohol consumption can lead to alcohol poisoning and death as a result of the concentration in the blood stream, and may also cause death indirectly by asphyxiation from vomit aspiration.

These reactions depend on how much is consumed and how quickly. Women are generally more sensitive to alcohol’s harmful physical and mental effects than men.

Long-term use can lead to alcohol abuse, physical dependence and alcoholism, a broad term for any drinking of alcohol that results in problems. Cell membranes are highly permeable to alcohol, so once alcohol is in the bloodstream it can diffuse into nearly every cell in the body.

Factors for alcoholism

Environmental and genetics factors are both associated with alcoholism, with about half the risk attributed to each, a 50/50 dangerous association. By having a parent or sibling with alcoholism, you are three to four times more likely to be an alcoholic.

Environmental factors include social, cultural, and behavioural influences. High stress levels, anxiety, inexpensive and easily accessible alcohol and high social acceptance of alcohol use (and even abuse) increase risk. People may continue to drink partly to prevent or improve symptoms of withdrawal. A low level of withdrawal may last for months following cessation.

Medically, alcoholism is considered both a physical and mental illness.

Nevertheless, drinking alcohol plays an important social role in many cultures, turning alcohol into one of the most widely used recreational drug in the world and, I repeat, widely considered as the adequate behaviour in many social venues. If a person does not drink alcohol, that person will be out of context, not “belonging”. We all know that we cannot toast with water; it is regarded as not acceptable social behaviour.

Excessive alcohol use, including underage drinking and binge-drinking, which is drinking five or more drinks on an occasion for men or four or more drinks on an occasion for women, can lead to increased risk of health problems such as injuries, violence, liver disease and cancer.

Accidents and alcohol

The more you drink, the more likely you are to have an accident and actually more young men die from drinking and driving than any other group of people.

The effects of alcohol can last longer than you think and even after alcohol has left the bloodstream, accidents are more likely to occur. In one study, 14 hours after drinking, two-thirds of a group of pilots could not perform routine tasks in a simulator, despite the fact that all the alcohol had left their system.

Accident victims who have been drinking suffer more serious injuries than those who have not.

When there is an accident and the injured person has been drinking, recovery from injury may be more difficult because alcohol affects the circulation and the immune system.

When a patient is drunk, it is harder for doctors to diagnose serious conditions such as head injuries. Alcohol can interfere with anaesthetics and other medications, meaning operations and treatments may have to be delayed.

The short and long-term effects of alcohol can affect body, lifestyle and mental health, but being armed with the real facts and understanding the consequences will help to make an informed choice about drinking.

The truth is that alcohol is a drug, a very dangerous one, one that is socially accepted and even promoted in many ways.

When will people, in general, understand these facts as a real threat?
Best health wishes,

Dr. Maria Alice
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Dr Maria Alice is a consultant in General and Family Medicine. General Manager/Medical Director – Luzdoc International Medical Service / Medilagos. Medical Director – Grupo Hospital Particular do Algarve