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So what is alcohol?

February 2017

Seniors drinking on a beach

Smoking has been a no-no for many years now...but in recent times the attention has also been turned to alcohol.

Alcohol is now being presented as a drug rather than a drink, and there are constant warnings about drinking limits and the damage it can do.

Here at Laterlife we found that many of us had little idea of what alcohol exactly is although most of us know it comes in different strengths (who remembers that very potent barley wine from our youth!)

When we started investigating, we realised it is really quite a complex area, but also very interesting.

First, alcohol is nothing new. An alcoholic rice drink called sura was made by the Indians as far back as 2000 BC and around the same time Babylonians had a wine goddess they worshipped. So even in those days there clearly were different types of alcoholic drinks.

Alcohol is generally made by the fermentation of fruit or grain. This is a process where yeast breaks down sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The actual chemical basis is glucose and yeast equals alcohol and carbon dioxide.

The alcohol produced in this form for our drinks is ethyl alcohol, more commonly called ethanol.

There are actually different types of alcohol (it can be made through a chemical combination of hydrogen with carbon monoxide for instant) but for our normal alcoholic beverages, ethanol is the alcohol involved.

The alcohol produced by fermentation is a clear liquid at normal room temperature. Drinking this pure alcohol liquid can be fatal which shows the potency of alcohol. Therefore a lot of care is taken over the levels of alcohol in a drink. For instance beer has an average of around 4.5 per cent alcohol, wine about 11 percent and champagne about 12 per cent. Spirits are considerably higher, with alcohol levels of perhaps around 40 per cent but this can go much higher in really strong drinks.

This higher level of alcohol is often produced by distilling (heating up and removing the components that dilute the alcohol content such as water).  Beer, wine and cider are usually simply fermented, but brandy for instance is made by the distillation of wine and has a much higher alcohol level.

The fruit, grain or even vegetable used to make alcohol provides a very different drink. Wine for instance is fermented grape juice although you can of course have elderberry, peach and other varieties of wine. Beer is usually made from the fermentation of malt obtained from barley grains; but again there are other types of beers such as wheat beer made from other grains.

When you start drinking an alcoholic drink, around 20 per cent of the alcohol is absorbed into the stomach and the rest gets taken in by the small intestine.

The speed of this depends on the level of alcohol in the drink, the type of drink – carbonated drinks tend to help speed up the absorption of alcohol – and whether you have eaten recently as food can slow down alcohol absorption.

Once the alcohol is absorbed, it rapidly enters your blood stream where it gets broken down in the liver which gives you energy. However, some of the alcohol in the blood stream will also reach your brain, and here it can start interfering with your neurotransmitters. These are the messenger molecules that help control our brain.

One of the key transmitters alcohol is thought to affect is glutamate,  which helps to stimulate the brains electrical activity. Alcohol can have a blocking effect on glutamate. Another key transmitter affected by alcohol is GABA, which does the opposite and inhibits the brain’s electrical activity. Alcohol is thought to enhance the effect of GABA.

Put these two together and you can see that the brain’s electrical activity can be depressed from both sides, which can have various affects but generally makes you more relaxed.

But that is not all alcohol does. It also stimulates the production of dopamine.  This is an important chemical that affects the reward-motivation aspects in the brain and is associated with pleasure. This release of dopamine can be addictive, the more dopamine an activity releases, the more you may want to repeat that activity. Time for another drink!!

How do we get rid of this alcohol in the body? Well the kidney removes five per cent, and surprisingly the lungs exhale another five per cent, which is why the police use breathalyzer devices to detect when drivers have been drinking.

The rest of the alcohol is broken down by the liver into acetic acid.  Hence really heavy persistent drinkers can suffer liver damage. Generally a normal person can get rid of alcohol at the rate of around 0.5 oz or 15 ml an hour, so the alcohol from a 355 ml can of average beer for instance would take around one hour to be removed from the body.

Everyone is different and some people deal with alcohol much better than others. Whether we take the modern day warnings and limits to heart or not, it is great that there is so much more information available about this historically popular form of refreshment.


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