Understanding Alcohol

What is Alcohol and What does it do?

Alcohol is a legal mind altering substance that when used in large quantities can cause damage to various parts of the brain. Once alcohol is ingested it enters the blood stream through the stomach and intestinal tract. From there alcohol travels to the brain. Once in the brain alcohol affects the functioning of many different parts of the brain.

It is common knowledge that alcohol slows down the central nervous system and dulls the senses. This is because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. But alcohol also reduces inhibitions by altering the function of the frontal lobes of the brain which are responsible for making decisions and maintaining self-control. In addition even small amounts of alcohol affect the hippocampus causing difficulty with short term memory. In larger doses alcohol causes what are referred to as “Black outs”. These are periods of time where an individual’s cannot remember their actions. Binge drinking and chronic abuse of alcohol can cause damage to the hippocampus which manifests by individuals experiencing difficulties in learning or retaining new information.

Adolescents and young adults are at a higher risk for brain damage related to alcohol consumption because their central nervous system is not fully developed. In fact, the prefrontal cortex of the brain does not fully mature until around 25 years of age. This is one of the underlying factors that were considered when the legal age for alcohol consumption was raised to 21 years of age, and may facilitate a new statute raising the legal age for consuming alcohol to 24 years of age.

Effects of Alcohol

We have established that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that slows response time, dulls the senses and can affect short term memory. In addition alcohol affects the cerebellum which is the brains center for coordination. This is why intoxicated individuals have difficulty with large motor coordination and are described as “staggering” when walking. Intoxicated individuals also are at high risk for traumatic injury due to loss of balance resulting in falls.

So far we have discussed the most noticeable effect of alcohol on human behavior. Now let’s look at the not so obvious effects of alcohol. Heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature are all regulated by the hypothalamus and the medulla. Alcohol causes these regions of the brain to alter their functioning causing blood pressure to increase, while body temperature and heart rate decrease. This dynamic is what causes increased hunger, thirst and increased urination. It also puts intoxicated individuals as a higher risk of hypothermia due to the decrease in their core body temperature. The medulla also controls the number of breath taken each minute. Large doses of alcohol in short periods of time can cause an individual to stop breathing and result in death.

Although alcohol is legal for individuals over the age of 21 to consume it can be harmful with both short term and chronic abuse. It is imperative to drink responsibly if you choose to drink at all. This is why it is very important to stay educated on this substance and think before you decide to take that drink. If you have any questions feel free to contact the Behavioral Health Intervention Center.

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