Dr. Robert Kurrle, M.D., Senior AME
As we approach the party/holiday season, it's time to consider the affects of alcohol usage on our bodies. Alcohol in reasonable amounts may actually be good for you. Alcohol, even in small quantities however, can affect your ability to think and act coherently.
In large quantities, alcohol is a toxin and continued use can lead to alcohol dependence, major health and social problems, and even death. Social drinking can be fun. Drinking alcohol on one's own can lead to becoming an alcoholic. So, if we elect to drink, how does alcohol affect our body; how much can we drink; how do we cure a hangover; and what does the FAA think?
Alcohol is present in many beverages. It is readily absorbed from the GI tract and about 90% is metabolized in the liver. But, the liver can only metabolize about one half ounce per hour. When we drink alcohol faster than the liver can process it, the remainder is picked up by our blood (in place of oxygen and nutrition) and transported around our body. It acts as a central nervous system depressant and is addictive. As alcohol reaches our brain, our neurological processes slow down, which can result in loss of coordination, slurred speech, poor judgment, slowed reflexes, distorted vision, memory lapses, and even blackouts. Excessive alcohol consumption can also cause a loss of inhibition - which is why we may be the life of the party and dance on the table, but have no memory of it!
Alcohol abuse can cause a variety of health problems. The brain can develop dementia, a loss of cognitive function, memory, and reasoning ability. The heart can become enlarged with arrhythmias. The liver can develop cirrhosis, resulting in loss of normal liver function, which is essential for life. Liver functions that are impaired can include blood filtration and cleaning, and clotting factors. The stomach can develop ulcers or cancer. Alcoholism can also lead to malnutrition and death. Excessive drinking during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome. Over 40% of traffic fatalities are related to alcohol. Alcoholism is a disease. There are many treatment programs available through employers and state and local agencies. It can be successfully treated, but it must first be recognized.
When we drink too much, what causes the hangover and what can we do about it? First, alcohol is a diuretic, which causes the body to lose more fluids than it takes in. It also reduces our store of vitamins and minerals, as well as increases our production of insulin, resulting in low glucose levels. Headaches come from dehydration, decreasing sugar levels, and the congeners in the drink (darker alcohol, more congeners). Lack of coordination, slurred speech, slowed reflexes, and poor judgment comes from the toxicity of alcohol. Toxicity can also irritate the stomach causing gastritis, leading to vomiting and diarrhea. Alcohol interferes with our sleep rhythm. And it also interferes with many medications.
If you are going to drink, take control and have a designated driver. Eat before drinking because food will slow down the rate at which alcohol is absorbed. Drink slowly and pace yourself. Stay hydrated- drink one glass of water for each alcoholic beverage. Drinking a lot of water during or after alcohol consumption will help to lessen the affect of a hangover. Folklore includes many so-called "cures" for hangovers, however rehydration is often key. Hangovers are frequently accompanied by stomach disturbances, which can be countered by bland carbohydrate rich foods or antacids. Care should be taken when taking analgesics and alcohol together, as both can lead to GI irritation.
Blood transports alcohol. As it passes by the lungs, some alcohol comes out of solution and into our exhaled air. The concentration in our breath correlates with the blood level. This is measured by the "Breathalyzer". The amount of alcohol in your blood stream is referred to as the Blood Alcohol Level (BAL). It depends on your weight, gender, and the amount and rate of alcohol consumption (remember the a liver can process only one half once per hour). The legal driving limit is 0.08, but everyone is affected differently by alcohol. Your driving may be impaired with lesser amounts. The FAA states you should not fly within eight hours of consuming alcohol. Obviously, you should not fly if you are feeling the affects of alcohol even after the eight hours. The FAA requires any DUI to be reported to the FAA within 60 days and also reported on your next Airman Medical application (item 18v). When you sign your Airman Medical application, you are granting permission to the National Driver Register to release to the FAA information pertaining to your driving record.
Remember, alcoholism is a disease that can be treated successfully. If you drink, drink sensibly: do not drive (or fly), have a designated driver and know your personal limits. Have a happy and safe holiday and happy flying.