Excessive alcohol use can cause various physiological effects

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Pierre Nelson
  • 461st Operations Support Squadron
The medical consequences of chronic alcohol abuse and dependence have been well documented in adults. They include liver disease, lung disease, endocrine disorders and brain changes. For the casual drinker, one should have a clear understanding of the disparities of the impact of alcohol on the body and mind. Alcohol awareness from a physiological perspective is essential to being safe and productive.

Ethanol is the chemical used in alcoholic beverages and is readily absorbed in the stomach and small intestines. From there it goes to the brain, where most effects are noticed. The effects can range from expected and desired to unanticipated and undesired. Ethanol depresses the central nervous system and lowers both cognitive and physical abilities. Low doses significantly impair judgment and coordination. In small amounts (6 ounces or less), it can induce feelings of relaxation and tranquility, suppress anxiety, and in some, inspire feelings of confidence. However, as the dose is increased, the pleasant euphoric feelings begin to give way to feelings of depression. 

Mixing alcohol with caffeine, either in premixed drinks or by adding liquor to energy drinks has become a common way for younger crowds to consume alcohol. With this dangerous combination, drinkers may feel somewhat less intoxicated than if they had consumed alcohol alone. However, they are just as impaired and more likely to take risks. 

Intoxication occurs because the liver is unable to metabolize more than one ounce of alcohol every hour. Therefore, when a person consumes more alcohol than the body can metabolize, intoxication occurs. 

Intoxication can generally last anywhere from one to 12 hours, and the after-effects ("hangover") of intoxication can last 24 to 48 hours even with a .00 Blood Alcohol Content. Coupled with the sedative effects, when the individual finally falls asleep, early REM (rapid eye movement) periods are not experienced.  

Additionally, the way alcohol is metabolized in part accounts for the further disruption of the rest of the "normal" sleep cycle. As a result, REM sleep is most disrupted. How much alcohol? While there will be individual variability, two or more drinks in close proximity to sleep will have the previously described effects on the quality and perhaps quantity of sleep. 

Always ensure you have a plan any time the consumption of alcohol is involved. If your primary plans fall through and you need a ride home, call Airmen Against Drunk Driving at 478-222-0013. Anyone can call AADD, from active duty members and civilians, to contractors and dependents.

Editor's Note: Information courtesy Reinhart, R. (2008) "Basic Flight Physiology" New York, McGraw-Hill Co.