Ethanol uncovered

You may refer to it as vodka, beer, wine, tequila, or ‘whatever he’s having’, but the thing you’re actually getting is ethanol. Certainly if you drank it in its pure form you wouldn’t last long enough for the next round, let alone the rest of the night. But what does ethanol actually do? How is it affecting your brain and body? And perhaps more importantly for many students, how can you avoid its side-effects?

Alcohol dissolves in the blood and is distributed to the parts of the body with greatest water content, for example the liver and the brain. There it inhibits the production of an anti-diuretic hormone known as vasopressin, meaning that the water from your kidneys is sent straight to the bladder, rather than being reabsorbed into the body. This dehydration leads to your desperate thirst the following day – your body’s way of telling you to replenish the water lost by your organs. It is important to note that it is the loss of water from the brain that causes the hangover headache. So in reality, those painkillers you may rely on the next day are not so much of a miracle after all – the solution has more to do with the glass of water you’re washing them down with.

The amount of water content in the body explains why alcohol tends to have a greater effect on females. Since alcohol is more soluble in muscle than in fat, and females tend to have less muscle and more fat than males, the alcohol is less highly distributed around the body. Furthermore, females are generally smaller, and so the effective concentration of alcohol in their body is greater.

When ethanol is broken down by enzymes in the liver, ethanal is formed. This is toxic and so is quickly converted by more enzymes into glutathione, which goes on to form a substance similar to vinegar, this results in the ‘acidy’ feeling you may experience in your stomach. However, when too much ethanol is drunk too quickly, the liver’s glutathione source starts to decrease, causing a build-up of this toxic ethanal.

Naturally, your body does what it can to expel it – commonly sending it back the way it came in. Again, males have the upper-hand, as they tend to have a larger amount of glutathione available to them, and more of the enzymes needed for the process. In other words, they can break down ethanal more effectively.

Sugar is one thing that helps remove toxins, and if it comes in the form of fruit juice, this can also replenish some of the vitamins that are lost with the expelled water. Eating eggs is another good way to combat any side-effects of alcohol, because they contain the compounds needed to help break down toxins.

Ethanol is able to pass through the protective blood-brain barrier into your central nervous system, where it affects the way in which your neurons transmit electrical impulses across synapses.

Alcohol inhibits some neurotransmitters, like those which control your reflexes and muscle function, then stimulates others, which leads to the release of the ‘happy hormones’ serotonin and dopamine. Several parts of the brain are also affected, causing behavioural changes and influencing your judgment, emotion, memory and movement – not that I need to tell you that.

So next time you’re out in town, or enjoying a couple down at the Charles, you’ll know exactly what’s happening to your body and brain. You always knew what alcohol does, but now you know exactly how it works its magic – or perhaps its evil – inside you. As to which of these it is, that’s up to you.

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