Amy Kenny Tue Mar 6 2012
Beer goggles tend to be slightly rose-coloured. You might remember the drinking games, the dancing and the 3 a.m. falafel, but you’re quick to forget all the direct effects of alcohol — the mood swings, the slurring and the embarrassing falls.
Remembering the high points is kind of ironic, especially considering alcohol is a depressant. It’s a statement we’ve all heard before, but what exactly does it mean? How does such a depressant affect your body over the course of an evening?
Because there are so many variables at play when it comes to alcohol absorption (food intake, existing medical conditions, prescription and recreational drugs, weight, etc.) it’s impossible to offer a definitive timeline of what happens to the body during a binge-drinking episode.
Dr. Anne Holbrook, director of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics at McMaster University, says a rough guide suggests one drink leads to memory impairment, three drinks affects gait and balance and more than four drinks begins to depress the central nervous system — the method by which all the body’s activities are co-ordinated.
Chris Skinner, the Waterdown teen who died in June 2010 after a night of heavy drinking, reportedly consumed a 26-ounce bottle of rye, a few beers and a glass of screech (a type of rum) before passing out.
Sue Kennedy, executive director of Hamilton’s Alternatives for Youth, ay.on.ca/home.htm, offers a six-stage overview of the symptoms and related impairments of a binge:
1) Though any amount of alcohol is impairing, the average person initially appears normal. It takes the body one hour to eliminate a single drink (defined as 1.5 oz spirits, 5 oz wine or 12 oz of 5 per cent beer). Though sweating, breathing and bowel movements account for some of this, about 90 per cent of alcohol elimination is done by the liver.
“If you saturate the liver, the alcohol accumulates and you have toxicity,” says Holbrook.
Impairments: none are visible but subtle effects can be detected by blood tests.
2) Catherine Cosgrove, clinical director of Sobriety Home in Quebec, says the mild euphoria that accompanies the early stages of a binge is one of the reasons so many people turn to alcohol to cope with stress and depression. At this stage, people are relaxed and talkative, with a mild loss of inhibition.
Impairments: loss of concentration. Subtle effects of intoxication can be detected.
3) Blunted feelings, extroversion and greater loss of inhibition are experienced.
Impairments: reasoning, depth perception and peripheral vision weaken.
4) As drinking continues, one becomes boisterous and overexpressive. Mood swings, anger, sadness and decreased libido may occur.
Impairments: decline in reflexes, speech, reaction time, and gross motor skills including walking and maintaining balance.
5) At this stage, one enters a stupor. A loss of understanding and sensation can lead to the consumption of large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. This can be particularly risky if someone passes out because alcohol continues to be absorbed and further depresses bodily functions. Choking on vomit can occur while sleeping.
Impairments: Serious loss of motor skills, loss of consciousness and memory blackout.
6) This is the most dangerous phase and, depending on the person, can be reached with as few as four or five drinks. The central nervous system becomes depressed and slows functions such as breathing and heart rate. At this point, death can occur as a result of respiratory failure. People will sometimes try to induce vomiting to rid the system of alcohol, but Cosgrove says this does nothing to eliminate what is already in the bloodstream.
Impairments: bladder function, breathing and heart rate.
Special to The Hamilton Spectator