If you want to understand how a person can get high on alcohol, get drunk on it, or die from it, you have to know how alcohol works–or more specifically, what it once it’s inside of you.
Alcohol, or ethyl alcohol, or simply ethanol is a unique molecule with powerful effects. Ethanol can penetrate through any cell membrane–meaning it can get to anywhere in your body–in a short amount of time. Once alcohol gets in the bloodstream, it is carried to every cell in the body, and affects every major organ, including the muscles, the skin, the heart, the liver, and the brain.
How Alcohol travels in the body
Step One: From the stomach and intestines
Once alcohol enters your digestive system, it flows quickly into the blood capillaries lining the digestive tract. About 20% of alcohol is absorbed directly across the walls of an empty stomach and can reach the brain within one minute. Ten percent is absorbed in the upper portion of the small intestines. From here the alcohol-saturated blood travels to the liver, where it affects nearly every single liver cell.
Step Two: the Liver
The liver, the organ that performs thousands of essential functions, is the site where alcohol is broken down to be excreted. When alcohol is metabolized, the result is an enzyme called acetate. Acetate triggers a sequence of effects in the body and ultimately results in an increase of fatty acids. Fats begin to clog the liver, which is why drinkers tend to have “fatty livers”. An accumulation of fat in the liver can be observed just one episode of heavy drinking. If unchecked, this effect significantly reduces the liver’s ability to function efficiently, resulting in impairment of a person’s nutritional health. If the condition persists long enough, liver cells will eventually die, forming fibrous scar tissue (fibrosis) until the condition is irreversible (cirrhosis).
Meanwhile, any alcohol that isn’t metabolized wanders around the body, coming out in the urine from the kidneys, seeping from the skin, or being breathed out by the lungs. Alcohol affects every organ in the body, and the health effects of alcohol consumption are diverse.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Body Organs:
- Stomach: Ethanol irritates the lining of your GI tract as it passes through your digestive system, resulting in vomiting, nausea and eventually ulcers.
- Pancreas: Alcohol affects the release of certain pancreatic enzymes and chronic use can progress to pancreatic inflammation (pancreatitis).
- Liver: Alcohol can cause a fatty liver, liver scarring, and if the condition continues, irreversible liver failre (cirrhosis).
- Cardiac system: Alcohol increases blood pressure, and contributes to a variety of heart diseases, including sudden cardiac death, irregular heart rhythms, stroke, high cholesterol levels, and coronary artery disease.
- Immune system: Alcohol weakens your immune system and makes your body more susceptible to disease. For example, chronic drinkers are more likely to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than those who do not drink. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, just one episode of binge drinking will slow your body’s ability to fight infections for up to 24 hours.
- Brain: Click here to read about alcohol’s effect on the brain.
Other Health Effects of Alcohol:
- Cancer: alcohol can cause cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx and esophagus
- Pregnancy: Exposure to alcohol in the womb can prevent normal fetal development and may lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, a congenital syndrome characterized by physical deformities, mental retardation, learning disorders and behavioral problems.
- Arthritis: alcohol increases the risk of gouty arthritis
- Diabetes: Alcohol can both raise and lower blood glucose levels.
- Malnutrition: Alcohol impairs the absorption of essential nutrients, especially proteins and vitamin B12 and B1 (thiamine). Deficiency of vitamin B12 may lead to anemia, and deficiency of vitamin B1 contributes to the development of brain disorders (wet brain link).
- Psychological disturbances: alcohol also causes depression, anxiety, and insomnia
- Nervous system disorders: alcohol causes nerve damage, which impair balance and memory