Alcohol Effects on the Body (Hafen,Alcohol)

Central Nervous System

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. People may at first appear boisterous as "judgment" areas of the brain are depressed. But as alcohol levels rise, speech and motor areas are impaired. High levels of alcohol shut down vital areas and can result in coma or death.

Alcohol acts as an irritant to the gastrointestinal tract. Moderate overindulgence ordinarily results in nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Prolonged and excessive use of alcohol usually causes progressively more serious erosion of the gastrointestinal tract lining, ranging from gastritis to ulceration and hemorrhage. This can lead to increased secretion of digestive juices which can produce pancreatic irritation and damage.


The effects of alcohol upon the liver are complex and are not fully understood. Two major changes are an alterative in fat metabolism (fat builds up in the liver) and eventually, scarring of the liver.

Circulatory System

Alcohol causes a temporary increase in heartbeat and blood pressure. The peripheral blood vessels dilate, which permits heat loss with a feeling of warmth.

Fluid Balance

Water shifts from within the body s cells to the intercellular spaces. This may account for the sensation of increased thirst. Urinary output increases due to the diuretic effect of alcohol on the pituitary gland.

Sensation and Perception

Even low doses of alcohol reduce sensitivity to taste and odors. Alcohol has little effect on the sense of touch, but dulls sensitivity to pain. Sharpness of vision seems relatively unaffected by alcohol. However, a narrowing of visual field (tunnel vision) occurs, which may be particularly dangerous in automobile driving because peripheral objects are not seen. Low doses of alcohol reduce resistance to glare so that the eye requires longer to readjust after exposure to bright lights, producing a period of relative blindness that can be hazardous for driving. Alcohol also impairs the ability to discriminate between lights of different intensities. Sensitivity to certain colors, especially red, appears to decrease.

Motor Performance

Tests of muscular control or coordination show that intoxicating doses of alcohol impair most types of performance. A sensitive indicator of alcohol effect is the "standard steadiness" test. Alcohol increases swaying, especially if the eyes are closed. Coordination is also adversely affected by alcohol, as in tracing moving objects.

People differ in their susceptibility to the effects of alcohol on motor performance, especially at blood alcohol levels below 0.10 percent. Although sufficient alcohol impairs anyone's performance up to its normal level.

Attention, Memory, and Conceptual Process

Although alcohol usually does not affect a person's concentrated attention when only one source of incoming information is involved, alcohol impedes the capacity to absorb information from more than one source simultaneously and to switch from one source of information to another.

Other tests measuring both speed and accuracy suggest that alcohol has a greater effect on accuracy and consistency than on speed. A person who has had several drinks tends to "breeze through" a complex test, but makes more errors than normally and is more erratic in responses. Many persons, however, feel that their performance has improved and refuse to believe otherwise when shown the poor results.

Significant loss of memory functioning occurs wish acute doses of alcohol and may develop into "blackouts" involving amnesia without loss of consciousness. Memory storage processes are particularly disrupted by alcohol. When intoxicated, people have considerable difficulty processing new information and recalling that information later.

Recent studies indicate that alcohol may take its toll on the sober cognitive functioning of social drinkers as well as that of alcoholics. In tests of abstraction and adaptive abilities, middle-class men employed in high-level occupations performed poorly in relation to the amount of alcohol they reported consuming. That is, those who drank larger amounts per drinking occasion performed more poorly when tested while sober. The pattern was strongest in heavy drinkers, but it was also evident in light and moderate drinkers.


People rely on the alcohol "high" as they mingle in social drinking situations, each recognizing that the others are also less responsible for what they do and say. Although drinking tends to increase in tense situations, it is not clear that drinking always reduces feelings of tension and anxiety in social drinkers. It has always been suggested that the way people behave when they are drunk is determined largely by what their social group expects of the state of drunkenness.

Some studies show that alcohol tends to decrease fear and increase the likelihood that an individual will accept risks. Some people are more likely to risk failure after drinking than when they had not been drinking.


People infer alcohol's capacity to release inhibitions from the observation that, after drinking, some people tend to show an increased amorousness. This has given rise to an assumption that alcohol promotes or improves sexual activity.

Tests have revealed consistently that, to the contrary, large doses of alcohol frustrate sexual performance. Studies of alcoholics have revealed that their sex life was disturbed, deficient, and ineffectual. Alcoholics may experience impotency, sometimes reversible with the return of sobriety.

It appears that, for nonalcoholics, a few drinks dull the sense of restraint and, by helping to overcome lack of confidence or feelings of guilt about sex, may facilitate sexual expression. A subtle truth, however, was expressed by Shakespeare: Drink "provokes the desire, but it takes away from the performance."


The effects of alcohol on sleep are known to anyone who has gone to bed after having had too much to drink, only to toss and turn and awaken the following morning feeling headachy and fatigued. Taking several drinks before bedtime has been found to decrease the amount of REM (rapid eye movement), or dreaming sleep. The consequences of being deprived of REM sleep are impaired concentration and memory, as well as anxiety, tiredness, and irritability.

Factors That Influence Absorption

Alcohol requires no digestion; once the beverage is swallowed and travels to the stomach, the process of absorption begins. It diffuses through the walls of the gastrointestinal tract to the blood vessels which carry alcohol through the body approximately 1/2 of the total consumed alcohol is absorbed while in the stomach. The major absorption of alcohol occurs in the small intestine. These factors can influence the rate of absorption:

1. Alcohol concentration in the beverage. The greater the alcohol content of

the beverage-up to a maximum of about 40 percent (80 proof)-the more

rapidly the alcohol is absorbed and the higher the peak blood-alcohol


2. Other chemicals in the beverage. The greater the amount of nonalcoholic

chemicals in the beverage, the more slowly the alcohol is absorbed.

3. Presence of food in the stomach. Eating with drinking affects the

absorption of alcohol, especially if the alcohol consumed is in distilled

spirits or wine. When alcoholic beverages are taken with a substantial

meal, peak blood-alcohol concentration (the percentage alcohol in the

blood stream) may be reduced by as much as 50 percent.

4. Speed of drinking. The more rapidly the beverage is ingested, the higher

the peak blood-alcohol concentration.

5. Emptying time of the stomach. Emptying time of alcohol in the stomach may

be either slowed or speeded by fear, anger, stress, nausea, condition of

the stomach tissues, and type of food consumed.

6. Body weight. The blood-alcohol level in a 180-pound person who consumes

four ounces of alcohol is usually substantially lower than that of a

130-pound person taking the same amount in the same length of time. The

larger person has more blood and requires greater amounts of alcohol to

reach a given blood-alcohol level.

7. Drinking history. Tolerance may be built up from a long history of

drinking; increasing amounts of alcohol are needed to result in the

physical and behavioral reactions formerly produced at lesser


8. Body chemistry. Each individual has a pattern of physiological

functioning that affects his/her reaction to alcohol. For example, some

people experience the "dumping syndrome," in which the stomach empties

more rapidly and alcohol is absorbed more quickly.

9. Environment. Where one drinks may determine how quickly the effects of

alcohol are felt. There may be distinct differences in rapidity of effect

depending upon whether drinking is done at the local tavern, a social

gathering at a friend's home, a hostile environment, or an unfamiliar


10. The drinker's expectations. The preconceived notions of the effects of

alcohol will influence the actual effects produced by drinking.

11. General state of emotional and physical health. Many people seem more

susceptible to the effects of alcohol when they are extremely fatigued,

have been recently ill, or are under emotional stress and strain.

Sobering Up and Hangovers

Nothing except dialysis will speed up the sobering up process. The body oxidizes approximately 1 ounce of alcohol an hour. The myths about coffee, cold showers, and exercise are just that-myths. In fact, giving a drunk coffee will turn a sleepy drunk into an awake drunk. Time is the only thing that will sober up a drunk person. And about hangovers-the only things that will help a hangover are rest, solid food, and aspirin.

Use of Alcohol

When we talk about the differences in the way people drink, we refer to a continuum of use: experimentation, social use, problem drinking, drinking problem, and alcoholism.

1. Experimentation: Many students experiment with alcohol until they learn

their limits and preferences. During this phase, a student decides how

much is too much. It is not uncommon for a student who is in this phase

to abuse alcohol in order to test limits.

2. Social Use: After experimentation, a student can decide how he/she wishes

to use or not use alcohol: under what circumstances, how much, what type

of alcohol is preferable. Drinking behavior settles into a predictable

pattern of responsible use of alcohol.

3. Problem Drinking: Someone in this phase has not learned from his/her

mistakes during the experimentation and social use phases. This phase is

characterized by repeated alcohol abuse. However, such abuse may not

create problems for this person in a major life area (job, school, social

life, family, etc.). Signs of abuse: drunkenness, vomiting, use to avoid


4. Drinking Problem: At this point in the continuum, the person's alcohol

abuse is creating problems, but he/she may not be chemically addicted to


5. Alcoholism: Alcoholism is a progressive, chronic disease. Alcoholism can

be treated, but not cured. Chemical dependency is defined as continued

use of a mood altering substance despite its causing increasingly serious

problems in any major area of the person's life. Alcoholism is

characterized by:

excessive use,

loss of control over the amount consumed,

irrational, compulsive behavior,

tolerance, and

withdrawal symptoms.

Progression of Alcoholism

Alcoholism is NOT a sign of "moral weakness," NOR is recovery a matter of "willpower." The alcoholic has an illness and is chemically dependent.

About one out of ten people who drink will develop this disease. Alcoholism affects men and women of all ages, social and economic backgrounds. People are not alcoholic because of what they drink, when they drink or how often they drink. Someone who is drunk may not necessarily be alcoholic and an alcoholic may not always appear to be drunk. The illness is characterized by a loss of control over drinking and denial about that loss. Evaluation of alcoholism is best made by a trained alcohol counselor. You should not try to diagnose.

An alcoholic is someone whose drinking causes a continuing problem in any area of his/her life. The first area affected is inner life. The person becomes disturbed when drinking behavior repeatedly fails to go as planned. Usually, the home life is next. Unusual behavior connected with drinking shows up first for those closest to the alcoholic. The social life is affected as the alcoholic drops friends who confront him/her about drinking. A change to "drinking buddies" may occur. The physical life is affected as the need for drinking grows. The alcoholic may have a frequent inability or unwillingness to eat. Business, professional, financial areas may become a serious problem later in the progression.

The disease of alcoholism never just levels off and stays at one point, nor does it ever subside, reverse and get better. Most of the symptoms described will appear in time.

College Substance Abuse Program Development Manual, Washington State Substance Abuse Coalition, January 1989



Central Nervous System		Depressed
                                High levels can result in coma/death
                                Gastrointestinal irritant resulting in
                                ulcers, erosion of lining, and pancreatic
Liver	           Change in fat metabolism and eventually
                                  scarring of the liver.
Circulatory System		Temporary increase in heartbeat and blood
                                 Peripheral blood vessels dilate resulting in
                                   heat loss and feeling of warmth.
Fluid Balance			Water shifts within the body to give feeling
                                   of thirst.
                                 Diuretic effect increases urine output.
Sensation and Perception	Reduced sensitivity to taste and odor.
                                Tunnel vision: reduction in peripheral sight.
                                Limits abilities to distinguish light
                                Sensitivity to colors, esp. red, decreases.
Motor Performance      		Most types of performance are impaired by
                                  intoxicating doses of alcohol.
                                Alcohol increases swaying, especially if eyes
                                   are closed
                                Coordination for tracing moving objects is
Attention, Memory, and 		Inhibits the ability to absorb information
Conceptual Process                 from more than one source at a time.
                                 Alcohol affects accuracy and consistency of a
                                   task more so than it affects speed.
                                Significant memory loss occurs with high
                                   doses of alcohol and may develop into
                                   blackouts involving amnesia.
                                 Creates difficulties in processing and later
                                   recalling information.
                                Heavy drinkers will perform lower on
                                   abstraction and adaptive abilities when SOBER
                                   than those who drink less heavily.
Emotions                 	Decreases inhibitions and "frees" people up
                                   in tight social situations.
Sexuality                        Large doses of alcohol frustrate sexual
                                Sex lives become disturbed, deficient, and
                                Impotency occurs, sometimes reversible with
                                   the return of sobriety.
                                 As Shakespeare once said, "Drink provokes the
                                   desire, but takes away from the performance."
Sleep               		Several drinks decrease REM, or dreaming
                                   sleep, resulting in impaired concentration
                                   and memory, increased anxiety, tiredness, and

Alcohol Drink Equivalents

Wine                  Beer                    Hard Liquor
One Glass One Can One Shot
12% = .12              5% = .05                 40% = .40
     x  5 oz.              x 12 oz.                  x 1.5 oz.
.6 oz of .6 oz. .6 oz. actual alcohol