How al­co­hol af­fects your body

Lesotho Times - - Health -

MOST of us who en­joy drink­ing know that af­ter a hideously stress­ful day at the of­fice it’s the norm to go out with friends for a “pick-me-up” drink, or go home and col­lapse on the couch to re­lax with a beer or glass of your favourite wine.

But be­fore you take that next swig, have you ever thought what al­co­hol does to your body, and more specif­i­cally, to your ner­vous sys­tem?

Not to be a killjoy, but like with most things, mod­er­a­tion is the key word when con­sum­ing al­co­hol.

About 130 peo­ple in South Africa die each day due to al­co­hol re­lated in­ci­dents, says Pro­fes­sor Charles Parry, direc­tor of the Al­co­hol and Drug Abuse Re­search Unit at the South African Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil (MRC).

His con­cern goes be­yond sta­tis­tics; he says var­i­ous non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases (NCDS) and con­di­tions are “en­tirely at­trib­ut­able to al­co­hol”. These in­clude many men­tal and be­havioural dis­or­ders, foetal al­co­hol syn­drome (FAS) and ner­vous sys­tem dam­age.

“The more al­co­hol you drink, the more prob­lem­atic these dis­ease-re­lated com­pli­ca­tions be­come,” Pro­fes­sor Parry warns.

How ex­actly does al­co­hol af­fect your cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem (CNS), (i.e. your brain and spinal cord) and pe­riph­eral ner­vous sys­tem (PNS)?

The CNS plays such vi­tal roles that your body can­not sur­vive without it. These in­clude tak­ing in and pro­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion through the senses, con­trol­ling com­plex mo­tor func­tions as well as other tasks like rea- son­ing, think­ing and, un­der­stand­ing.

Al­co­hol acts as a de­pres­sant on the brain and other nerve tis­sue. This means it slows down the func­tion­ing of nerves cell and ac­tiv­ity in the CNS, ex­plains neu­rol­o­gist Dr Stu­art Kieran of Bit­ter­root Neu­rol­ogy in Mon­tana, USA.

It might sound odd, since most peo­ple usu­ally be­come less re­served and more an­i­mated af­ter drink­ing al­co­hol. Fact is, the acute feel­ing of eu­pho­ria or loss of in­hi­bi­tion is not stim­u­la­tion, says Dr Kieran, but rather the re­sult of “cer­tain ar­eas of the brain that nor­mally con­trol judg­ment, rea­son­ing and in­stincts be­ing sup­pressed”.

How al­co­hol af­fects your brain As you con­tinue drink­ing and more al­co­hol en­ters your brain, it im­pairs your judge­ment, vi­sion and alert­ness; dulls the senses; af­fects con­cen­tra­tion; slows your re­ac­tion time; and de­creases co­or­di­na­tion.

Just ob­serve a few peo­ple hav­ing a drink or three and it will soon be­come ob­vi­ous that ev­ery­one re­sponds dif­fer­ently to al­co­hol and has vary­ing tol­er­ance lev­els.

Many fac­tors in­flu­ence “how and to what ex­tent al­co­hol af­fects your brain”, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tute on Al­co­hol Abuse and Al­co­holism. These in­clude how much and how of­ten you drink; at what age you started drink­ing; your gen­der; weight; gen­eral health sta­tus; and fam­ily his­tory of al­co­holism.

In ad­di­tion, whether you’re con­sum­ing al­co­hol with food, the pe­riod over which you drink, whether you’re mix­ing it with other drugs like mar­i­juana and even mood and psy­cho­log­i­cal make-up all con­trib­ute to the way al­co­hol af­fects the CNS, says an ar­ti­cle on Sci­ence Netlinks, an ed­u­ca­tional project linked to the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence (AAAS).

Long-term ef­fects Nor­mally your brain’s pro­tec­tive blood-brain bar­rier pre­vents or slows the pas­sage of some drugs and other dam­ag­ing sub­stances from the blood into the CNS.

But that doesn’t ap­ply to al­co­hol, be­cause it’s able to cross this bar­rier and reach nerve cells (neu­rons) di­rectly within min­utes. There’s also no di­ges­tion needed for al­co­hol, so your body metabolises it be­fore many other nu­tri­ents.

When a large amount of al­co­hol quickly en­ters the brain, it causes a rapid rise in blood al­co­hol con­cen­tra­tion (BAC), se­ri­ously dis­rupt­ing the ac­tiv­i­ties of sev­eral neu­ro­trans­mit­ters in spe­cific ar­eas.

If al­co­hol merely re­sulted in tak­ing dumb de­ci­sions, walk­ing un­steadily, slur­ring your speech and gen­er­ally act­ing like a clumsy clown for a cou­ple of hours, it would prob­a­bly not be such a big deal.

Neu­rol­o­gist Dr Kieran says while the acute ef­fect of al­co­hol on the cere­bel­lum (the area of the brain that con­trols co­or­di­na­tion, move­ment, bal­ance and com­plex mo­tor func­tions) is tem­po­rary, chronic ef­fects are not tem­po­rary.

Al­co­hol can have a “toxic ef­fect on nerve tis­sue and cause per­ma­nent im­bal­ance”, he re­marks.

Don’t dis­miss the other long-term ef­fects al­co­hol can have on the body’s CNS. Aside from dam­ag­ing your nerve cells per­ma­nently, long- term al­co­hol use can also cause short-term mem­ory loss, for­get­ful­ness, weak­ness and sen­sa­tion prob­lems like numb­ness or tin­gling.

Ways in which al­co­hol af­fects your ner­vous sys­tem:

— Mem­ory im­pair­ment: Al­co­hol can cause mem­ory loss (am­ne­sia), and when used long term, can re­sult in per­ma­nent mem­ory loss and con­fu­sion.

— Im­paired walk­ing, re­ac­tion time and hand-eye co­or­di­na­tion: Al­co­hol can af­fect both the in­ner ear and cere­bel­lum that are in­volved in bal­ance and co­or­di­na­tion, caus­ing walk­ing and sen­sa­tion dif­fi­cul­ties.

— Sleep dis­tur­bances: While small amounts of al­co­hol may ini­tially have a se­dat­ing ef­fect, it dis­rupts sleep over­all. It can also cause night­mares and ag­gra­vate sleep ap­noea, a po­ten­tially se­ri­ous sleep dis­or­der where breath­ing con­stantly stops and starts.

— Be­havioural changes: The ethanol in al­co­hol can cause dam­age to brain neu­ro­trans­mit­ters. If this dam­age is on­go­ing, it can re­sult in be­havioural and mood changes such as de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and seizures. — Health 24

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