Chapter 2. Alcohol... odorless, colorless and tasteless and potentially dangerous
I love the feeling it gives me.
Jessica J., Franklin Pierce College senior
I hate the feeling of being out of control.
Steve L., University of Florida junior
I hate the taste of beer but I drink it anyway.
Jessica L., University of Florida sophomore
It acts as liquid courage and a social lubricant.
Alan S., University of New Hampshire sophomore
Beer, wine and liquor all contain alcohol – pure ethyl alcohol (ETOH), which is odorless, colorless and tasteless. And, alcohol is one of the most enigmatic products we consume today. Historically, it has been with us since the Stone Age – the Bible alludes to Noah’s getting drunk – and it was a staple on the Mayflower as it crossed the Atlantic to America. Grandfathers share their beer with toddlers sitting on their knees while mothers tell their children to wait until they’re of legal age before they drink. By some it’s considered the devil’s brew, yet others use it in sacred ritual. It has survived temperance movements in Italy, Germany, England and the United States. It’s been used as a thirst quencher, to relieve hunger, as a medication and as a mind-altering drug. It’s heavily regulated yet the regulations are often disregarded either secretly or overtly. On the college campus it is the main attraction at fraternity keggers and at faculty sherry hours. According to the 2013 Monitoring the Future Study, 78% of college students have tried alcohol at least once in their lifetime and 66% report they have been drunk.1 Lifetime alcohol consumption among college students reached a new record low level of 78% in 2013, decreasing 17% proportionally since 1991.2 The media consistently highlights the dangerous and damaging
behavior of a number of students whose drinking is negatively impacting their own success as well as disrupting the lives of the students around them. Yet, interestingly, despite the disturbing headlines and news reports of excessive drinking on today’s campuses, the reality is that most college students either do not drink or drink in a low-risk manner. The importance of a clear understanding about the true nature of college drinking patterns will be presented later in this book. In the meantime, let’s take a look at what happens to us once we have consumed this popular drug called alcohol.
I always thought that you drink, get a buzz, maybe a hangover and that’s it. I couldn’t believe how much alcohol affects so many parts of the body. God, what have I done to myself?
John H., Keene State College senior
If you choose to drink alcohol while you are in college, it is important that you understand the impact alcohol can have on your body and mind. When you have a drink, up to 5 percent of the alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream through the capillaries in your mouth. Then, approximately 20 percent is absorbed into your bloodstream through the stomach lining. The remainder is absorbed into your bloodstream through the walls of your small intestine. While traveling through the bloodstream, the alcohol affects all the organs it encounters, especially your brain.
Blood Alcohol Level
We got her to the hospital just in time. Later we heard that her BAL was .41 percent.
Ralph S., Manhattan College junior
Blood alcohol level (BAL) refers to the ratio of alcohol to blood in the bloodstream. Also known as blood alcohol concentration (BAC), it is represented as a percentage. Here’s an analogy which may help you understand what those numbers represent. Picture a shelf with 10,000 compartments. Each compartment is filled with a drop of blood. If I replace one drop of blood with one drop of alcohol, the shelf now has a BAL of .01 percent. If I replace two drops of blood with two drops of alcohol, the shelf now has a BAL of .02 percent. If I replace ten drops of blood with ten drops of alcohol, then the shelf has a BAL of .10 percent.
Previously a BAL of .10 percent was considered legally drunk in most states. National legislation linked to highway funding in the year 1984 facilitated a national BAL limit of .08 percent, and rightly so. After all, ongoing research continues to indicate a clear, direct relationship between increased BAL and increased risk for automobile crashes, serious injury and death.
I had no idea what to do with the funnel. All I know is we drank a lot of beer through that thing. I got shit-faced in less than an hour.
Stacey R., Keene State College first-year student
Often times when I go to parties I will drink for a little while and then start drinking water around 11 or 12. I’ll do this because I feel myself getting drunk. This gives me time to sober up.
John R., SUNY Cortland sophomore
Alcohol is a toxin. The liver has the job of metabolizing or breaking down and clearing toxins, such as alcohol, from the body. It can do this at an average rate of approximately one drink per hour. (A drink will be defined shortly.) If you drink more than one drink per hour, the alcohol accumulates in your bloodstream, increasing your BAL and increasing your impairment. A simple analogy to help you understand this is a faucet, a sink and a drain. If I turn the water on slowly, it simply moves smoothly through the sink and down the drain. If I turn the water on more quickly, it will accumulate in the sink because the drain cannot handle the volume of water. It’s the same with alcohol. If you sip it slowly it gets metabolized and “drains away” through the body before it can accumulate in your bloodstream. If you drink too quickly, the alcohol will accumulate in your bloodstream thus increasing your the BAL.
One very dangerous activity maintaining continued popularity on many campuses is using a funnel to consume multiple beers or other drinks in a very short time – a few seconds, as a matter of fact! One reason this is dangerous is that using a funnel or, for that matter, chugging or shot-gunning beers, circumvents the body’s natural protection system. This protection consists of a valve between your stomach and small intestine called the pyloric valve. Most times this valve will close if your BAL gets too high, thus causing you to vomit. But if you consume a large quantity of alcohol in a short period of time, the valve does not have a chance to close. Your BAL is then allowed to climb dangerously high.
Although the average rate of metabolism is one drink per hour, the range is approximately one-half drink to one-and-a-half drinks per hour. This is important to remember if you use one of the Blood Alcohol Calculators such as the ones available on the internet or a pre-calculated BAL chart like the one at the end of this chapter. The estimated BAL indicated on the internet calculators or charts is usually based on the average metabolic rate of one drink per hour. Therefore, if your metabolism happens to be slow, your BAL could be almost 50 percent higher than indicated on the chart!
1. Alcohol enters the mouth.
2. Alcohol travels down the throat to the stomach.
3. Alcohol is absorbed into the blood by the stomach and small intestine.
4. Alcohol travels through the blood to the water-containing organs of the body.
5. Alcohol affects many brain functions.
6. Alcohol is metabolized by the liver.
7. Alcohol is excreted from the body after processing by the kidneys.
I know a lot of people who think, why drink if you’re not going to get drunk? I used to think this way, but what is so great about getting drunk, getting sick, passing out or putting yourself in danger?
Deborah A., Plymouth State College junior
I try to be a responsible drinker. Most of the time I don’t get really drunk, I just get a good buzz.
Buddy S., University of Virginia sophomore
As we just saw, if you drink alcohol at a rate faster than one drink per hour, your blood alcohol level will increase with each drink. The greater your BAL, the greater your level of impairment. Impairment is any slowing of your physical, psychological or emotional functioning beyond the initial relaxation effect of alcohol.3 The greater the level of impairment, the greater the risk for an impairment problem. The following scenario represents the typical development of impairment problems due to alcohol consumption by an average 175-pound male (Joe) and a 125-pound female (Jane) after drinking for three or four hours.
Before heading out to a party, Joe and Jane may feel a little shy, insecure or stressed about socializing in a new environment, with new people. They decide to have a “primer.” After one drink, Joe will have a BAL of approximately .02 percent, and Jane’s will be approximately .037 percent. There will be little change in their behavior, but they may feel more relaxed.
As they arrive at the party, they may still feel uptight, so they head straight for the keg. Within the next hour or so they consume three or four drinks each. Jane’s BAL will be about .12 percent, and Joe’s approximately .06 percent. They are high or “buzzed.” Joe has lost his inhibitions, and it is obvious he has been drinking. Jane may start to slur her speech and stagger a bit. Her reaction time and dexterity are severely impaired.
They might join a drinking game and lose a couple of rounds. After six drinks, they are obviously impaired. Even though their bodies are metabolizing the alcohol, their livers cannot keep up with the amount being consumed. Therefore, their BALs continue to rise. Jane’s is around .19 percent, and her emotions are becoming erratic. Joe, with an approximate BAL of .11 percent, might now be slurring his speech and staggering. Surprisingly though, they may not even recognize they are impaired.
They feel daring and funnel a few beers. They now have consumed ten drinks each. Jane is nearing a coma with an approximate BAL of .30 percent. Joe is experiencing erratic mood swings and is becoming belligerent. His BAL is about .20 percent.
Friends might convince them to leave the party and go back to their residence hall. Before he leaves, Joe hits the shot bar and guzzles five shots of liquor. His BAL now approaches .30 percent. If they kept drinking, they would depress their central nervous systems dramatically. Their respiratory and/or circulatory systems could fail. Both could come dangerously close to a coma and possible death.
Their judgment and inhibitions are depressed. They may attempt to have sex, and new risks then arise. Is there mutual consent to have sex? Will Joe be able to attain an erection? Will Jane be able to achieve an orgasm? What about the long-term emotional impact of this unplanned sexual encounter? Who’s got the condom? Will they use it?
The reactions indicated in the above scenario are generalizations. Some people would have been more impaired more quickly, and others would have required more alcohol to become so impaired. We will see shortly that tolerance and a number of other factors will determine the impact alcohol could have on you during any session of drinking. These factors include weight, gender, food, altitude, health and age.
I usually drink two to three times per week and usually these times I get impaired. I now can handle two six-packs without getting impaired. I know that I am not making good decisions but I enjoy drinking. It makes you feel good for awhile but then it brings you way down.
Barbara U., University of New Hampshire sophomore
People drink alcohol for a variety of reasons: to quench their thirst, for flavor, for sacred ritual, for celebration. Many people, especially college students, drink to get impaired. If you start drinking, it may take you two or three drinks to get impaired. If you continue drinking to impairment on a regular basis, each time you drink you may need a little more alcohol to reach the same level of impairment because your body will have adapted due to the previous drinking episode. In other words, the body has increased its tolerance to alcohol.
Here’s why: Our bodies are wonderful machines. They adapt very well. Take for instance the body’s ability to adapt to varying temperatures. As we live through a warm summer, our bodies adapt to the warmer temperatures. When a cool September day hits us, say around 50 degrees, we would normally put on a jacket. Our bodies adapted to the warmer temperatures of summer and are not accustomed to the colder fall temperatures. Then, during a very cold winter, our bodies adapt to the cold. When spring arrives with an occasional warmer day with temperatures around 50 degrees, students around the campus will be wearing T-shirts and shorts! Their bodies have adapted to winter and can tolerate colder temperatures.4
It’s the same with alcohol. Tolerance is the degree to which your body has adapted to a given blood alcohol level. If you drink to impairment, each time you do so your tolerance will increase; your body will try to adapt and minimize your impairment at a given BAL. To get impaired again, it will take just a bit more alcohol to overcome the adaptation. The level of adaptation or increase in tolerance is subtle and not easily measured. Research indicates, however, that in just one session of drinking to impairment, your body will probably have a slight increase in tolerance. We see that the level of impairment for a given BAL is higher as the BAL is increasing compared to the impairment at that same given BAL when the BAL is decreasing.
If you stop drinking to impairment for a few weeks, your tolerance will eventually decrease. For instance, the tolerance for many students fluctuates as their school circumstances change. They may begin classes in September and have fairly low tolerance. Maybe three or four beers get them impaired. As the semester continues and they continue drinking to impairment each weekend, their tolerance will increase. They may go home for winter break with a much higher tolerance to alcohol. If they decrease their consumption during the break, their tolerance may subside a bit. But once they return to school in January, back to the bars and parties and increased alcohol consumption, their tolerance will continue to rise again. When summer rolls around, maybe they will return home to their parents. They may work at a full-time job or hang around with their non-college friends who tend to drink less than they do. Their consumption decreases, and therefore their tolerance once again begins to decrease.
But remember that increased tolerance only delays impairment, it cannot prevent it. Whenever we drink to impairment, we are at greater risk for impairment problems such as falls, fights, DUI infractions or car crashes, risky unplanned sexual encounters and the like.
In addition to the amount of alcohol consumed, the speed at which it is consumed, and your tolerance, a number of other factors will also affect how quickly and to what degree you will get impaired if you choose to drink:
Food in your stomach will slow the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream and delay impairment. There are varying reports as to whether or not the type of food ingested (carbohydrate, fat, protein) will have any significant measurable influence on BAL. However, we do know that the larger the meal and the closer the time between eating and drinking, the lower the peak blood alcohol concentration. Studies have shown reductions in peak blood alcohol concentration (as opposed to those of a fasting individual under otherwise similar circumstances) of between 9 percent and 23 percent.
Alcohol mixed with carbonated beverages such as Coca-Cola or Seven Up will be absorbed more quickly into your bloodstream. This is also true for champagne and wine coolers.
Women who are pre-menstrual, and sometimes those on birth control pills, tend to get more impaired more quickly.
Strong emotions – anger, fear, loneliness – tend to hasten impairment.
If you are tired, sick or just getting over an illness, you tend to get more impaired more quickly.
Mixing alcohth other drugs often leads to increased impairment in a shorter peri
Personal Challenge: Estimating BAC or BAL
To learn how to estimate Blood Alcohol Content (Blood Alcohol Concentration or Blood Alcohol Level).
Estimate BAC or BAL utilizing the calculator below or try one of the suggested Apps:
Insert Gender, Weight, Height, Age
Choose a drink
Choose how long you will take to drink it
Click on "Drink"
Continue as indicated in exercises
Suggested BAC Calculator Apps
Exercise 1: John weighs 200 pounds and is 22 years old. He is out at a party and has been drinking shots and beers. He had five shots (1 ounce of 100-proof whiskey) and a twelve-ounce bottle of beer after each shot. He has been drinking at the party for three hours. The host suggests he quit drinking alcohol and gives him some coffee to sober him up. After drinking coffee for the next hour, what is his estimated BAL?
Exercise 2: As part of an organization’s initiation ritual, Cindy, who weighs 120 pounds, is forced to drink screwdrivers containing double shots (1.5 ounce of 80-proof vodka per single shot). She has had seven of these screwdrivers in two hours. Connie has become delirious and her friends place her in a cold shower to sober her up. What is Cindy’s estimated BAL after two hours?
Exercise 3: Ralph brings a six-pack of average beer with him for a visit with his friends. They are watching a football game on television which lasts three hours. He finished his six-pack while watching the game. After leaving his friend’s house, he is immediately stopped by the police. He is 20 years old and weighs 180 pounds. Will he get a DUI ticket? If he were 21 years old and weighed 200 pounds, would he get a DUI ticket?
Exercise 4: Imagine it is one o’clock in the morning and you have had enough alcohol to bring you to a BAL of .22. You decide to stop drinking and go to sleep due to an important nine o’clock class. What would your estimated BAL be when you entered the class at nine o’clock in the morning?
Answers to these exercises can be found in the Challenge Results section at the end of this book.