Alcohol

Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that acts as a central nervous system depressant. As blood alcohol levels increase, the body responds to it in stages, which range from relaxation, euphoria, and excitement to confusion, stupor, coma, and, in extreme cases, death.  Alcohol interferes with communication between nerve cells and all other cells, and it affects various centers in the brain.  Moderate consumption of alcohol can lower inhibitions, increase relaxation, dull the senses, raise the pain threshold, and limit the ability to think clearly. As blood alcohol increases, users may experience heightened emotional responses (including anger and aggression), lack of coordination, poor balance, slurred speech, dizziness, disturbed sleep, nausea, and vomiting.  Extreme alcohol consumption can cause memory loss (“blackouts”), complete loss of coordination, and alcohol poisoning.  In some cases, overdoses can be fatal.

In addition to alcohol’s effects on the brain, alcohol also affects the body tissues.  It irritates the stomach and intestine lining and increases stomach acid secretion, causing vomiting; increases blood flow to the skin, causing users to sweat and appear flushed; and reduces blood flow to the muscles, causing muscle aches most notably felt as the alcohol leaves the system (“a hangover”).  The severity of the effects of alcohol is dependent on a variety of factors, including the weight, age, and sex of the individual consuming the alcohol, and how much was eaten before and during consumption. Alcohol is eventually metabolized and eliminated from the system at a rate of between 13 and 18 mg per hour.  While alcohol is primarily used casually in social situations, excessive use can lead to abuse and dependence, both of which may ultimately require treatment.

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QUESTION: Why can alcohol become an addictive substance?

ANSWER:  Drinking alcohol causes a release of endorphins and activates reward circuitry in the brain.  Heavy and frequent drinkers experience a larger release of endorphins; thus, drinking alcohol becomes an extremely rewarding experience that the user begins to seek out despite negative consequences.  Eventually, tolerance and dependence develop, and users become addicted to alcohol.

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