Binge Drinking -- How Harmful Is It ... Really?

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Cassandra Locke
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office
If two friends drink six beers every night for six months, do both have the same risk of becoming alcoholics or substance abusers?

"Anyone is at risk for alcoholism, but studies have shown that individuals who have a family history of alcoholism are more prone to it," said Tech. Sgt. Michelle Wilson from the 43rd Medical Group at Pope Air Force Base, N.C.

She said social drinking is defined by having a couple of drinks one to two times a week. Drinking five or more drinks in a 24-hour period is considered binge drinking.

A person is considered an alcoholic after showing signs of alcohol dependence. Those dependent on drinking alcohol can show any of the following signs: tolerance; withdrawal symptoms; drinking excessively or for longer than intended; giving up aspects of life if drinking can't be a part of it; persistent unsuccessful attempts to quit despite their intentions to cut down or control alcohol use; or continuing to drink despite it hurting a medical or mental health condition.

The 0-0-1-3 Philosophy
Wilson recommends using the Air Force's 0-0-1-3 philosophy when drinking. The first "0" stands for zero drinks for those younger than 21. The second "0" stands for zero alcohol-related incidents. The "1" stands for one drink per hour to give the liver enough time to process the alcohol. The "3" stands for a maximum of three drinks per night to keep the body's blood alcohol level below .05 percent.

"The one drink an hour philosophy is not to be able to drive safely," Wilson said. "If anyone has had anything to drink, they should not drive."

She said the guide is to help people avoid consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time ­-- putting them at risk for injury to themselves or others.

Wilson said it takes almost two hours to completely eliminate the first drink's effect on the body.

Once someone finishes an alcoholic drink, it takes a while for it to enter the blood stream and hit peak blood alcohol levels. The liver processes one ounce of alcohol an hour. Ninety percent of alcohol is processed by the liver, and 10 percent comes out through one's breath, urine and sweat as the alcohol is burned up as energy.

She said it takes women longer to metabolize alcohol because they tend to have more body fat. Also, things like birth control pills can affect the rate at which alcohol is processed.

Increased Tolerance
Many who have been pulled over for drinking and driving said they felt fine when they were driving. How did they have an increased blood alcohol level and feel fine?

"Because of tolerance,­ a person who normally does not drink can feel the effects after drinking one drink and be intoxicated at three or four," Wilson said. "If they started drinking a six-pack each weekend, give that person a month or two and they will build a tolerance to that much alcohol. It will get to a point that a six-pack will not affect them. But the blood alcohol level continues to rise no matter what their tolerance is."

Most people pass out at a .21 blood alcohol level, according to Wilson. She said even when a person has stopped drinking and goes to sleep, their blood alcohol level continues to rise for one to two hours after they stop drinking.

"If the poison receptors are activated when a person is passed out, they can choke on their own vomit," Wilson said.

The alcohol acts as a depressant. The more alcohol consumed, the more it slows down the central nervous system.

If too much alcohol is consumed, the central nervous system could come to a complete stop. If that happens, the person will not only pass out, but cannot awaken. At that point, an ambulance needs to be called.

"They cannot guess how much their blood alcohol level is going to continue to rise, and they may be in danger," Wilson said.

Blackouts and Abuse
Some people who drink a lot may experience blackouts. The part of the brain called the hippocampus stops working when someone has had too much alcohol. According to Wilson, the hippocampus acts like a VCR. It records what a person does and gives the person the ability to play it back again in their mind. A drunken person can still walk, talk and make decisions ­-- they just won't have memory of it the next day.

"The danger of this is they will have no memory if they had sex, if they were safe, if it was with someone they wanted to have sex with, or if they hit someone while driving home," Wilson said.

There are different ideas of what constitutes alcohol abuse, Wilson said.

Some warning signs of alcohol abuse include not meeting responsibilities; not meeting family obligations; doing things that could be physically hazardous after drinking, such as drinking and driving or unsafe sex; or legal, work or relationship problems.

If someone is late to work because they are suffering from a hangover or still under the influence, it not only negatively affects their social and work life, but it also can have negative biological effects.

Health Issues
Drinking alcohol can cause pancreatitis, a fatty liver and cirrhosis of the liver. It also can affect one's blood cells, heart, kidneys, endocrine and reproduction system, nervous system, brain, stomach, intestines, mouth, throat and esophagus. Additionally, it can lead to psychiatric conditions.

"Basically alcohol can affect every part of a person's body," Wilson said.

Alcohol is absorbed through the blood stream, which touches every system in the body. It can cause cancer, memory problems, nutritional deficits and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Alcohol abuse reduces one's life expectancy by 10 to 15 years. According to the 43rd Medical Group, alcohol is responsible for 40 percent of all fatal traffic accidents, 50 percent of all homicides and 25 percent of all suicides. Two hundred thousand deaths each year are related to alcohol use. Alcohol is the third largest public health problem, after heart disease and cancer.

"If anyone is experiencing any of the warning signs, I would recommend that they come in to (the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program, or speak with their (primary care manager) about their use and the symptoms they are experiencing," Wilson said.

She said a person cannot get into trouble for visiting the ADAPT office.

"It's only the behavior that usually goes along with alcohol abuse or dependence that can get a person into trouble -- like drinking and driving, underage drinking or being drunk and disorderly," she said