Despite the indisputable fact that hangovers are downright awful, alcohol has kept humans coming back for more for almost 10,000 years. One of the oldest and most common recreational substances, alcohol is deeply ingrained in many cultures throughout the world, holding important roles in social engagement, bonding, and religious rituals.
ince alcohol consumption is so normalised for most of us, it's important to take a step back every so often to reconsider the facts. We may find that society's version of 'normal' no longer aligns with our values, or it may be a case of just finding healthier consumption patterns when you do enjoy alcohol.
In the case of alcohol, it’s not only important to consider all the negative short-term and long-term impacts, but it also helps to look at the neurochemical effects that make it so desirable to us. So let's consider the following 10 facts about alcohol before looking at some ideas for a healthier social life.
Alcoholic drinks contain ethanol
Alcoholic drinks are produced through the fermentation of grains, fruits, and other sources of sugar. One of the metabolic byproducts of this process is an organic chemical compound called ethanol.
Ethanol is just one type of alcohol, but it’s the least toxic and only type of alcohol we drink. Along with isopropyl and methyl, ethanol is also used as a fuel and industrial solvent, and can still be toxic when consumed faster than the liver can metabolise it.
Alcohol is a psychoactive drug
One of the oldest and most common recreational substances, alcohol is a psychoactive drug. In other words, it’s a chemical substance that changes our perceptions, mood and consciousness by affecting the way the brain and nervous system work. As it’s a legal, multi-billion dollar industry in many parts of the world, drinking alcohol is perceived very differently from other drug use.
However, the fact that alcohol is a psychoactive drug is the reason people drink. Along with sedation and impaired cognitive, sensory and motor function, some of alcohol's desirable effects include euphoria, reduced anxiety and increased sociability.
Alcohol and other depressants also hinder our concentration and coordination,
It belongs to a class of drugs called depressants
A depressant drug doesn’t necessarily make a person feel depressed. In fact, by suppressing the activity of the central nervous system, depressants can have a positive effect on mood. Alcohol slows down the transmission of nerve impulses between the brain and the body, and in smaller doses, this can lower inhibitions, numb physical pain, and reduce anxiety.
At the same time, alcohol and other depressants also hinder our concentration and coordination, as well as our ability to respond to unexpected situations. The dangerous combination of increased confidence and poor reflexes is the reason behind such strict laws regarding alcohol consumption and driving.
When consumed in larger doses, alcohol can cause loss of consciousness, as well as death in the most severe cases.
Alcohol is processed in the liver (where hangovers are made)
While some alcohol metabolism takes place in the pancreas, gastrointestinal tract, and the brain, two enzymes in the liver do most of the work.
Alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) metabolises the ethanol into a carcinogenic compound called acetaldehyde, which is then quickly metabolised by aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) into a less toxic compound called acetate that breaks down into water and carbon dioxide.
These byproducts of ethanol metabolism are the source of the dreaded hangover, as well as the other unwanted short-term effects of alcohol, including dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.
Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems
Alcohol consumption is a leading cause of disease
According to the World Health Organisation, alcohol is responsible for 5.1% of the global burden of disease and contributes to 3 million deaths each year. It’s the 5th leading cause of cancer, and even light-moderate consumption can increase the risk of some cancers.
Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems, including:
- High blood pressure, heart disease and stroke
- Liver disease and digestive problems
- Various cancers
- Weakened immune system
- Learning and memory problems
- Depression anxiety and other mental health problems
- Relationship and family problems
Alcohol dependence and alcohol use disorder (AUD)
Heavy drinking is normalised
When considering the risks associated with alcohol consumption, it helps to be reminded of what low-risk, ‘moderate’ drinking really is. Regardless of what’s culturally considered ‘normal’, moderate alcohol consumption is no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.
More than 4 or 5 standard drinks over 2 hours is considered binge drinking. If you're able to drink this much without feeling the effects, it could be a sign that you're developing alcohol tolerance, which can lead to physical dependence and organ damage.
Moderate alcohol consumption may have some health benefits
While there are many physical and mental health risks associated with regular binge drinking, light-moderate consumption of certain alcoholic beverages may be beneficial to your heart health. Red wine, for example, contains antioxidants called polyphenols that protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart.
Resveratrol is just one of red wine’s many polyphenols that reduces inflammation, inhibits cancer cell growth, helps keep cholesterol levels healthy, and prevents clots and blood vessel damage. However, red wine isn’t the only source of resveratrol; red grapes, peanut butter, cacao, and acai are some great, natural sources that don't come packaged with any harmful health risks.
Regular drinking decreases physical fitness
As a depressant drug, alcohol is a sedative that slows down normal biological functions throughout the entire body. Maintaining and improving our fitness depends on the optimal functioning of these natural processes, so it's no surprise that studies show a decrease in overall fitness associated with regular alcohol consumption.
Even a few drinks the night before a workout has been shown to reduce muscle building and recovery by 37%! So, despite some possible cardiovascular benefits, it’s clear that moderate drinking can get in the way of your fitness goals.
Drinking also decreases the production of human growth hormone (HGH), which has a vital role in repairing and rebuilding damaged muscle fibres after exercise. The result is slower gains and sorer muscles, regardless of how good your nutrition is.
Not only is alcohol a source of calories that do not provide any nutritional value, but studies also show alcohol has a devastating impact on our hormone levels. Among other unwanted effects, hormonal imbalance can decrease metabolism, making it difficult to feel energised and maintain body fat at a healthy level.
Alcohol can increase your stress
Alcohol is known for its ability to reduce stress in the short term, and it does this by increasing the effects of a neurotransmitter called γ-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. However, the impact alcohol has on our physiological balance can compound the effects of stress in the long run.
While human growth hormone is decreased when we drink, alcohol consumption raises our levels of another hormone called cortisol. A catabolic hormone associated with stress, cortisol breaks down body muscle, skin, and bone.
Drinking alters our hormonal balance and brain chemistry, resetting what the body considers normal. This process is called allostasis, and it changes the way we perceive and respond to general stress in our lives. An unfortunate and common result is a heavier reliance on habitual alcohol consumption in order to temporarily relieve stress.
Alcohol activates the reward pathways in the brain
Drinking alcohol increases levels of dopamine and the endogenous opioids known as endorphins in the brain's reward pathways. While dopamine is the chemical messenger associated with pleasure and motivation, endorphins are the body’s natural pain killers, and they work similarly to the class of drugs known as opioids.
Alcohol also affects several other neurotransmitters, including glutamate, glycine, acetylcholine and serotonin. It’s the temporary changes to these chemical messengers that make alcohol consumption a coveted and pleasurable experience. In other words, drinking alters our brain chemistry in a way that makes us feel good (for a while) – and this is why it’s an addictive substance.
Ideas for a healthier social life
With each sip, alcohol flows into your bloodstream. It passes through the membranes of cells in your brain, heart, and other organs, triggering immediate physiological changes that lower our inhibitions, pain and anxiety. Since stress relief and social confidence are the main effects people seek when they have a drink, let’s look at some healthier ways to achieve these effects.
When we exercise, we get a natural release of endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. As these neurotransmitters improve your mood and reduce stress, there is less need to rely on alcohol to get those good feelings.
Running clubs and group fitness classes are great swaps for trips to the liquor store and nights out at the pub. Not only will you meet other people who value their health, but your mind and body will thank you.
Who says staying sober means no more delicious drinks? Next time you have drinks at your place, offer your friends these hydrating and nutritious mocktails. Made with watermelon, berries and passionfruit flavoured Tropeaka BCAA+, this recipe is a great healthy alternative to your usual summer cocktails.
Have you ever noticed how much better you feel as soon as you step onto a beach, walk through a forest or sit near a waterfall? It’s well known in the medical community that spending time in nature is great for our physical and mental health – it’s also a great way to spend time with the people you love.
Alcohol has held great social and cultural significance for thousands of years and while healthier choices can't always guarantee the exaggerated euphoria associated with psychoactive drugs like alcohol, they can ensure a more sustained and balanced state of wellbeing in the long run.