April 29, 2010

Bottoms Up

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With Slope Day just around the corner, I’m sure many of you are looking forward to celebrating the last day of classes in the way Cornell students have been doing it for years: Spending the day on the slope, enjoying a great concert and of course, drinking some alcohol.  Surveys show that two-thirds of Americans consume alcoholic beverages, and while alcohol is often a part of celebrations and can even be beneficial to your health in modest quantities, there are many harmful consequences of alcohol intoxication.  So before you go out and drink until you pass out again, it may be helpful to take a moment to understand some of the ways that alcohol affects your body.

When talking about drinking, we need to first define how much is too much.  A drink is technically defined as 0.5 ounces of alcohol, which corresponds to 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.  Studies have shown that people who consume no more than one to two drinks per day may actually be decreasing their risk of cardiovascular disease.  Alcohol may be causing this beneficial effect by increasing your HDL cholesterol (the so-called “good cholesterol”) or by interfering with the way that your blood clots.  In one large national study, people who had one drink per day had a 30-40 percent reduced risk of dying from a cardiovascular cause, such as a heart attack or stroke.  However, when you drink more than one to two drinks per day, the health benefits stop, and the negative side effects start to kick in.

The most well-known (and often desired) side effect is alcohol’s effect on the central nervous system.  Everyone knows that alcohol can cause a person to have impaired judgment and coordination, and many people will often describe having a blackout, where they forget all or part of what happened during a period of drinking.  This is technically called an episode of temporary anterograde amnesia, and it is reported in approximately 35 percent of drinkers.

While many people believe that drinking alcohol helps them sleep, that is not entirely true.  It may initially help you fall asleep, but it actually disrupts sleep throughout the rest of the night by altering the stages of sleep.  People who fall asleep while intoxicated have been shown to spend less time in the rapid eye movement (REM) and deep sleep stages of sleep.  These stages are known to be essential, with deep sleep thought to be associated with restoration of alertness and energy.  Additionally, alcohol can relax the muscles in the back of the throat, which can cause snoring.

Consuming alcohol can also wreck havoc on your gastrointestinal system by causing inflammation of the esophagus and stomach.  This can lead to heartburn, stomachaches, or in severe cases, gastrointestinal bleeding.  Typical hangovers, or withdrawal from alcohol, can lead to the classic symptoms of nausea, vomiting, headaches and fatigue the following day.

Everyone knows that a night of heavy drinking causes increased urination.  You may think that this is simply because you drank a lot of fluids, but hormones play a role as well.  Increased levels of alcohol in your blood causes decreased secretion of antidiuretic hormone (ADH).  ADH is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that causes you to retain water and decreases the amount of urine you produce.  Therefore, with less ADH in your blood, you end up urinating more.

Alcohol also has interesting effects on sexual functioning and performance.  Many guys think that drinking alcohol increases their chances of meeting girls.  In fact, in modest doses, alcohol can actually increase sexual drive.  However, alcohol is also known to decrease erectile capacity in men, so excessive drinking can have serious effects on your sexual performance.

Even though drinking alcoholic beverages can be fun and part of normal social behavior, it is important to remember that alcohol abuse and dependence are major public health concerns.  Up to 10 percent of Americans abuse alcohol, and there are many long-term consequences of alcohol dependence, including chronic and progressive liver disease, cancer and even death.  Additionally, the choices that we make while intoxicated — including driving — can have far-reaching consequences.

Therefore, when deciding how much to drink it’s important that you know the facts.  Drinking responsibly is easier said than done, but it has the potential for improving your health as well as avoiding embarrassing situations.  So on Slope Day, keep these facts in mind, and celebrate responsibly.

Original Author: Scott Kramer