Alcohol and Biology
To understand how alcohol damages the biological functioning of the human body, you must understand how the body processes the alcohol.
Once an alcoholic drink has passed our lips it travels down through the esophagus to the stomach where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, alcohol goes to every part of the body.
To get rid of the alcohol, it is eliminated through the metabolic system. Metabolism of alcohol takes place in the liver. The liver detoxifies the alcohol and removes it from the bloodstream. This prevents the alcohol from accumulating and destroying cells and organs. Some portions of the alcohol are excreted through the breath and sweat glands. In some cases not all the alcohol is metabolized in the first pass through the liver and will continue through the bloodstream until it can be metabolized completely.
The alcohol that has been metabolized in the liver creates metabolic waste which is filtered once again by the kidneys while controlling the bodily fluid balance. The more liquid a person consumes the harder the kidneys have to work to eliminate the fluid.
The kidneys send the fluid to the bladder and then it is sent on its journey into the sewer system.
Sounds pretty simple.
The system gets complicated when the liver cannot metabolize all the alcohol thus sending it back through the bloodstream over and over again. The toxins (which in fact are poisons), one of which is plasma ammonia, accumulate in various organs.
Let’s start with the liver and the most well-known alcohol-related disease.
CIRRHOSIS – With the consumption of large quantities of alcohol, the liver becomes scarred and the scar tissue blocks the flow of blood. The more scar tissue created the less the blood the liver can process. If the liver doesn’t function properly, the affect will be more toxins, such as plasma ammonia, not being eliminated. The blood will begin to thin and risk of infection will increase.
Some of the signs and symptoms of a malfunctioning liver include:
Jaundice -- yellowing of the skin and eyes
Fatigue and weakness
Loss of appetite, nausea
Red spider-like blood vessels visible just under the skin
Swelling of extremities, such as hands, legs, feet from fluid build-up
Swelling of the belly
As the liver damage increases other diseases develop.
The liver is a miraculous organ because it can regenerate itself if the alcoholic ceases ingesting alcohol permanently. However, each time alcohol consumption resumes the less time required for scarring to begin. By the time cirrhosis has been diagnosed, other complications have developed that are not as forgiving as the liver.
HEPATIC ENCEPHALOPATHY – With the liver not functioning properly, the plasma ammonia levels rise and are transported to the brain via the bloodstream. The ammonia makes a home in the frontal lobe of the brain and wrecks havoc on brain function.
Some symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy may include:
Lack of awareness (Is not aware of actions taking place in the same place)
Inverted sleep pattern (Sleeping all day and staying awake all night)
Irritability (Everything is a source of irritation – mostly imagined)
Tremors (Uncontrollable trembling or shaking movements)
Somnolence (A strong desire for sleep or sleeping for prolonged periods of time)
Asterixis (Uncontrollable movements of the arms and wrists)
Ascites (Accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity)
Disorientation (Confusion as to place, time, people)
Amnesia (Inability to remember day to day or even longer)
Uninhibited behavior (Ignoring personal hygiene, use of foul language in the presence of children, anything society would deem inappropriate)
Seizures, Coma and Death (eventually, if untreated)
Whether or not the damage is permanent depends on how long the alcoholic has been abusing. Some of the symptoms will disappear during the detox process, but some may never go away. The ability to remember is sometimes greatly hampered leaving the alcoholic with dementia.
ESOPHAGEAL VARICES and GASTRO-INTESTINAL BLEEDING– The lining of the esophagus is irritated by the alcohol as it travels down the throat and into the stomach. The alcohol is caustic and wears away the mucus membrane. The same thing happens in the duodenum and rectum – anywhere in the body where there is mucus membrane. The blood vessels become thin and the walls weaken. Since alcohol is a blood thinning agent, any tiny tear or lesion can become a life-threatening situation. Alcoholics have been known to bleed into their stomachs and eventually bleed to death before anyone would notice.
CARDIAC DISORDERS and STROKE – The heart of an alcoholic must pump harder to get the blood through the heart and thus causing high blood pressure. Alcohol also raises the amount of triglycerides in the blood stream increasing the risk of high blood pressure. After a while the heart will weaken and stop working properly. Remembering that the toxins are a part of the blood supply the arteries are weakened and the strain on them from the high blood pressure can cause them to rupture.
As far as a stroke is concerned, when bits of “junk” (from the triglycerides, bits of the blood vessels or any other substance) form in the bloodstream it gets carried through the body along with the blood. If it is carried to the brain, the blood clot lodges at a place of its choosing and a stroke results. The effects of a stroke are usually permanent and can range anywhere from forgetfulness to paralysis. The blood clot may choose another bodily site, such as the lungs (pulmonary embolism) or the eyes (retinal embolism). The affects are most often permanent, definitely life-threatening and often deadly.
This is just a small sampling of how the alcohol can destroy a body. There are more, such as alcohol hepatitis, pancreatitis, and many others. The most important thing to remember is that excessive alcohol abuse has the same effect as drinking poison. If you’re an alcoholic imagine that bottle you’re about to drink has a black label with a skull and crossbones imprinted in white. Do you really want take that drink?
In my opinion, if alcohol had just been invented last week it would be considered a Class 4 drug only to be dispensed by doctors and pharmacists. But, it has been “grandfathered” into our society as acceptable – that is until someone you love is killed by the effects.