What Is Alcohol And Why Is It Bad For You?
“Alcohol” usually means “alcoholic drinks”.
Alcoholic drinks have popular appeal, but many individuals are affected by it because alcohol contains ethanol.
Ethanol is the active ingredient in alcoholic drinks.
But ethanol is toxic because it affects the nervous system negatively if the amount used is excessive .
When alcohol poisoning happens due to too much ethanol in the body, serious health problems occur.
Some cases of alcohol poisoning can cause coma and death.
In addition, alcohol is also considered an addictive drug .
When alcohol is initially consumed, it acts as a stimulant, meaning, it energises a person.
As the person consumes more alcohol, a depressant or slowing-down effect happens .
Ethanol in alcohol can stimulate (excite) or depress (slow down) a person’s reactions depending on the person’s Blood Alcohol Content (BAC).
BAC can be measured by breathalyser, which is a hand-held device that can measure BAC rapidly .
The major reasons why individuals use alcohol are:
- To socialize
- To relax
- To celebrate special occasions
Drinking alcohol is important in many cultures, where “social drinking” or drinking with other people is part of bonding .
After consuming an alcoholic beverage, the body does not digest it. Instead, alcohol enters the bloodstream quickly through the gastrointestinal tract (stomach and intestines).
Because alcohol enters the bloodstream quickly, the effects of alcohol are immediately obvious.
In moderate amounts, the good effects of alcohol are: 
- Giving the person a “beer buzz”, a feel-good effect brought about by endorphin release in the brain
- Can relax a person so that worries and bothersome thoughts are tuned out
- Can initially help a person fall asleep
- Possibly contributing to heart health, especially if alcohol consumed is red wine
However, some individuals become addicted to alcohol. To recover, they opt to join a rehab centre.
Experts have identified two specific brain areas that alcohol affects .
- Nucleus accumbens – controlling the reward and pleasure experience
- Orbitofrontal cortex – involved in planning and decision making
Because these two areas are specifically affected, individuals who are addicted to alcohol tend to have long-term problems which include:
- Controlling the amounts of alcohol they consume
- Drinking even if the consequences will be dire (being in trouble with the law, family conflicts, etc.)
- Difficulty coming up with and following a plan, especially about quitting alcohol
- Having problems with following specific instructions unless guided by supportive persons
- A tendency to experience depression of alcohol is not consumed
- The likelihood of being addicted to other substances other than alcohol, as the neuropathways for drug addiction are the same brain areas affected by alcohol addiction
To recover from alcohol addiction, individuals can use NHS services or join a rehab clinic, such as Abbeycare The Hygrove, Gloucester.
Usually, how alcohol affects an individual depends on the following factors:
- Male or female
- Nutritional state (well-nourished, over-nourished or malnourished)
- General health status
- Usage and exposure to other drugs
How Is Alcohol Made?
Alcohol used as alcoholic beverages is made by the process of fermentation .
Fermentation occurs when yeasts are put into carbohydrates and left to mature.
The yeasts can be from a wild or a cultivated strain. Most alcoholic products use “Saccharomyces cerevisiae” or “Saccharomyces uvarum” as yeast agents .
The carbohydrates that the yeast comes into contact with can be from:
- malted barley
- malted wheat
- corn (maize)
The combination of yeast and carbohydrates are usually left to ferment in a vessel with a maintaining temperature (so as not to kill the yeast).
Manufacturers also add:
- Diammonium phosphate – to improve yeast growth
- Hops – as a preservative and to make beer taste bitter
The process by which alcoholic beverages are made is called anaerobic fermentation.
The end result of anaerobic fermentation is ethanol, which is the intoxicating ingredient of alcoholic drinks .
The carbohydrates eaten by the yeast also produce carbon dioxide.
The quantity of ethanol and carbon dioxide as an end result is because of the unique combination of the yeast agent and the fermenting ingredient.
This unique combination is why there are distinct flavours and types of alcoholic beverages.
There are specific ways of classifying alcohol products, depending on government regulations and traditional rules.
In the UK, the government regulates the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic drinks.
For taxation purposes, UK alcoholic drinks are classified according to: 
- Spirits – whisky (wholly malt or wholly grain), blended whisky
- Cider and Perry – sparkling or still
- Wine and made-wine
- Low alcohol beverages – these are wines that have an alcoholic strength no higher than 5.5% or made-wine with no more than 5.5% alcohol content.
There is a predominant belief that the type of alcohol a person consumes contributes to the aftereffects he or she feels.
Some people perceive that:
- Beer makes a person more friendly or sociable
- Tequila makes a person “crazy”
- Gin makes a person feel tearful
But alcoholic drinks only affects individuals in two concrete ways, namely alcoholic concentration and alcohol-related beliefs :
Spirits have a high concentration of alcohol compared to beer or wine. Usually, spirits are also consumed quickly. Because spirits are drinks with a high amount of sugar, bloodstream absorption is quick. This is why spirits have a stronger kick.
Meanwhile, beer is generally lower in alcohol content than spirits. The usual consumption of beers involves a social set-up. This is one of the main reasons why we perceive the consumption of beer as relaxing.
Applied psychology has been used to increase the appeal of alcoholic drinks to the general public by enhancing its good qualities and downplaying its potential for abuse.
In recent years, efforts have been made to sell beverages that are low in alcohol or alcohol-free, so that individuals who want to socialise with friends who drink will not feel left out.
Among the three types of alcohol, only food-grade ethanol is safe for human consumption .
The three types of alcohol, when classified according to chemical make-up, are isopropyl, methyl, and ethyl.
Isopropyl alcohol is used as rubbing alcohol, nail polish solvent, aftershave lotions, hand lotions, and other cosmetic products.
Methyl alcohol is used as an ingredient in antifreeze, rocket fuels, and as a clean-burning fuel alternative.
There is also an industrial grade of ethanol, and this is a solvent added to gasoline used in cars.
How Do You Know If Alcohol Is Affecting Your Health?
When individuals exhibit certain physical symptoms, it is an indication that alcohol is affecting their health. These physical symptoms are : 
- Breathing difficulties
- Coughing up blood
- Irregular heart rate (too fast or too slow)
- Frequent diarrhoea
- Frequent Stomach upsets
- Muscle weakness or shaking
- Numbness in hands and feet
In addition, there are also behavioural symptoms that indicate alcohol is affecting a person’s health. These behavioural symptoms are:
- It takes more alcohol than before to achieve the desired effects of alcohol (a sign of alcohol dependence)
- Drinking alcohol even if there are negative consequences
- Mood swings
- Seems to keep on forgetting things (memory loss)
- Blackouts, which are periods of time when a person loses consciousness and forgets what has happened for quite some time
- Slurred speech or mumbling and poor pronunciation of words
- Feeling tired all the time
- Difficulty going to sleep without consuming alcohol
With adolescents or teenagers, drinking can: 
- Impair the development of memory skills, long-term thinking skills and learning skills
- Harm the liver by disrupting the levels of liver enzymes
- Disrupt hormonal balance critical for the development of organs, muscles and bones
- Affect the reproductive system which is still in development during adolescence
Immediate intervention in a rehab facility can successfully stop teenage drinking so that alcohol addiction does not progress as a life-long disease.
To differentiate what moderate consumption of alcohol is versus alcohol addiction, we must refer to the presence of physical and psychological symptoms.
Casual drinking is when a person consumes alcohol in moderation. There are minimal physical symptoms and there is an absence of psychological symptoms.
Alcohol addiction is an illness characterised by the presence of physical and psychological symptoms. There is a great chance that a person who has alcohol addiction may be in denial.
Some individuals only seek help when they are affected socially by their behaviours. Ideally, persons who notice that a loved one is having problems with drinking behaviour should approach the situation as a health concern.
We must also bear in mind that not all persons who are addicted to alcohol hit rock bottom. There are so-called “grey area drinkers.”
“Grey area drinkers” are functional alcoholics. Most of these individuals are able to appear responsible enough, fulfilling daily obligations. But they experience alcohol dependence symptoms.
The main factors that influence drinking behaviour are: 
- To help cope with stress
- Because of social influences
As a result, persons who have successfully transitioned from alcohol addiction to addiction recovery find non-addictive ways to cope with stress.
Help by other people through Mutual Support Groups serve as positive social influences that steer a person away from alcohol addiction.
Joining an alcohol rehab programme, especially one that is structured has been proven as an effective way to kick-start recovery.
Recently, there is a trend called “sober living”, another term for abstinence from alcohol. Apparently, there is an underlying desire to change the image of alcoholism as a disease.
Instead, the focus is on living the best life without alcohol. Hence, a person who is recovering from alcoholism can call himself or herself a “sober warrior” instead of a “recovering alcoholic”.
The practice of Dry January is slowly gaining momentum in the UK.
- Encyclopaedia Briatnnica. (2019). Ethanol: Chemical Compound. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/ethanol
- National Institute of Health. (2011). Curriculum Supplement Series: Alcohol. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20360/
- British Medical Journal. (2002). Alcohol Breath Testing. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1124861/
- Abbey, A., Smith, M. J. & Scott, R. (1993). The relationship reasons for drinking alcohol and alcohol consumption: An interactional approach. Addiction Behavior, 18(6), 659–670. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4493891/
- Drugs.com. (2019). Alcohol. Available at: https://www.drugs.com/alcohol.html
- Thayer et. al. (2012). Nucleus Accumbens Volume Is Associated with Frequency of Alcohol Use among Juvenile Justice-Involved Adolescents. Brain Science, 2(4), 605-618. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4061806/
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019). Alcoholic Beverage. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/alcoholic-beverage
- Lumen. (2018). The Microbiology of Food. Available at: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-microbiology/chapter/the-microbiology-of-food/
- United Kingdom Government. (2019). Guidance: UK Trade Tariff: Excise Duties, Reliefs, Drawbacks and Allowances. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-trade-tariff-excise-duties-reliefs-drawbacks-and-allowances/uk-trade-tariff-excise-duties-reliefs-drawbacks-and-allowances
- National Health Service. (2017). Different alcoholic drinks may trigger different emotions; many of them negative. Available at:https://www.nhs.uk/news/lifestyle-and-exercise/different-alcoholic-drinks-may-trigger-different-emotions-many-them-negative/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2011). Alcohol Use Disorder. Available at: niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders