What is Alcohol: Know the Enemy Before the Fight

Alcohol Facts Header Image

Alcohol abuse causes about 88,000 deaths every year in the U.S. Those who die from excessive alcohol use have their lives cut short by an average of 30 years. The economic burden of alcohol abuse was $249 billion in the year 2010.

Alcohol abuse statistics leave no doubt that our enemy is deadly. We can fight it only with increased awareness.  Knowledge is power. Know what is alcohol and how it strikes the human body.

What is Alcohol?

Alcohol (aka ethanol or ethyl alcohol) is the substance found in beverages such as beer and wine and liquors like vodka, tequila, and whiskey. It causes intoxication for the users who consume these alcoholic beverages. Alcohol is produced via fermentation, such as when yeast is added to the fruits or grains.

There are different types of alcohol.

The alcohol that is used in beverages is ethanol or ethyl alcohol. It is the ingredient in wine, beer, whiskey, vodka, tequila, and other “alcoholic” drinks that causes what we commonly refer to as drunkenness or the appearance of the typical symptoms of alcohol use.

Ethanol is produced when yeast is added to grains or fruits to ferment—break down without oxygen—the natural sugar in these foods. For instance, beer is made by breaking down the sugar in malted barley, wine is made from grape sugar, and cider from the sugar in apples.

The typical alcohol content in different types of beverages are as follows:

  • Beer: 2–6%
  • Wine: 8–20%
  • Tequila: 40%
  • Rum and Brandy: 40% or more
  • Gin: 40–47%
  • Whiskey: 40–50%
  • Vodka: 40–50%
  • Liquor: 15–60%

So, is Alcohol a Drug?

Yes, alcohol is a class of sedative-hypnotic drug. When taken in large doses, alcohol’s sedative properties can prove lethal. An alcohol overdose causes the blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) to rise to dangerous levels, which can lead to organ damage. The degree of damage depends on the amount of alcohol absorbed into the bloodstream. Alcohol overdose adversely affects every major organ of the body and can lead to coma or even cause death.

The extent of damage depends on the amount of alcohol absorbed into the bloodstream from where it is carried to different organs of the body. When blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) rises and crosses a threshold limit, which is different for different individuals, the physical and mental symptoms start to show.

The amount of alcohol absorbed into the bloodstream depends on the following factors:

  • The rate at which the liver breaks down alcohol, which, in turn, depends on individual genetic makeup
  • The presence or absence of food in the stomach (food slows down absorption)
  • The concentration of alcohol
  • How much and how quickly the alcohol was consumed
  • Tolerance to alcohol
  • Age, gender, and ethnicity
  • Musculature (heavy-set persons with large muscle mass and/or body fat absorb more alcohol in their muscles and fat cells)
Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Here’s how alcohol acts on the CNS:

  • Alcohol depresses brain activity by stimulating the GABA neurotransmitter. This produces a calming effect; it is the typical feeling of “loosening up” that people tend to describe after having a drink or two.
  • Alcohol also has a stimulating effect but only in small doses. The feeling of relaxation manifests as increased talkativeness and feelings of euphoria in many people.
  • In larger doses, alcohol may depress CNS functionality causing potentially fatal effects. Initially, CNS depression causes drowsiness. In still higher doses, respiration can slow down or stop altogether. This can lead to respiratory failure and death if oxygen is not administered promptly.
  • Alcohol destroys cells and constricts tissues in the brain. According to research studies, alcohol disrupts the normal transmission of signals from one cell in the brain to another. Alcohol overdose and prolonged alcohol abuse cause neurodegeneration.
How does alcohol affect the brain?

Alcohol stimulates GABA neurotransmitters and depresses brain activity, which can produce a calm feeling. Alcohol acts as a stimulant when taken in smaller doses. Overdoses of alcohol depresses the central nervous system and can causes respiratory failure. Alcohol abuse damages the brain cells and constricts brain tissue.

Is Alcohol a Hallucinogen?

No, alcohol is not a hallucinogen.

Hallucinogens, more popularly known as psychedelic drugs, are mind-altering substances. They affect how people think, see, and hear and alter the way the brain sees the environment, perceives reality, and interprets time. Hallucinogens also affect thought processes, so under their influence, people are also unable to think clearly and filter the real from the unreal. Because the brain perceives an altered version of reality, people taking hallucinogens report seeing “visions” or images that are not real. It is this effect that has perpetuated stories of people seeing flying unicorns and fairies and hearing God’s voice after taking hallucinogens.

This Fox News report clarifies the difference.

Alcohol works on different parts of the brain and causes an entirely different set of side effects—relaxation and decreased motor control in small doses and unconsciousness and respiratory problems in larger doses. Alcohol does not cause hallucinations.

When is Alcohol Fatal?

Alcohol becomes potentially fatal when it is used in the following manner:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption in one sitting can cause respiratory failure and death.
  • Alcohol used with other CNS depressants, like heroin, sedatives, prescription pain medication, and over-the-counter cough and allergy medicines, is a double whammy.
  • A combination of alcohol and cocaine, which is a stimulant, is potentially more lethal than either of the two drugs taken alone. This cocktail magnifies the harmful effects of both the drugs on the heart and liver. The metabolism of cocaine and alcohol produces cocaethylene that can kill a person immediately or even 12 hours after taking the cocktail.

Knowing the facts about alcohol helps you make responsible choices.