As college students, we face many choices, each with costs and benefits. Choosing to drink before age 21 adds legal consequences on and off campus. That's a no-brainer. Regardless of age, consuming large amounts of alcohol is a high-risk activity. So let's get real... what are the risks and who is vulnerable? Read on to learn the facts and essential information.
Alcohol and the Body
Alcohol affects the way you feel and it affects all parts of your body. Your brain, lungs, eyes, ears, heart, liver, stomach, pancreas, kidneys, intestines, reproductive system, bones and muscles are all victims of alcohol abuse. (See Harmful Effects of Alcohol diagram).
- Brain - Alcohol directly affects brain cells. The results: unclear thinking, slurred speech, and staggering. Large consumption of alcohol may cause unconsciousness or death.
- Eyes - Alcohol can cause blurred vision.
- Heart - Alcohol can increase the workload of the heart. The result: irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure.
- Liver - Alcohol can poison the liver. Continued use causes extensive damage and failure.
- Stomach/Pancreas - Alcohol aggravates the digestive system. Consequences may include vomiting and ulcers.
- Kidneys - Alcohol can prohibit the kidneys from preserving a good balance of minerals and body fluids.
- Veins/Arteries - Alcohol widens blood vessels, resulting in headaches and loss of body heat.
- Blood - Alcohol reduces your body's ability to produce blood cells, which in turn triggers anemia and/or infections.
Alcohol and Athletes
Drinking the night before a competition is unwise. Even if the alcohol is completely metabolized by the start of the competition, drinking can disturb your sleep, leaving you too tired to put in a peak performance the next day. Here are some other ways that excessive drinking can affect your game.
- Alcohol use cancels out gains from your workout.
- The incidence of injury among athletes who are drinkers is 2 times that of non-drinkers.
- The hangover effect of alcohol consumption has been shown to reduce athletic performance by 11%.
- Alcohol inhibits the body’s ability to eliminate the metabolic byproducts of exercise (such as lactic acid) as well as its ability to use fat and protein, which are necessary for energy during endurance sports.
- Alcohol disrupts normal sleep, reducing your brain's ability to learn and retain information. The effect of alcohol on sleep also results in decreases in production of hormones critical for muscle development and recovery.
Alcohol and Gender
Women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently than men. Upon drinking equal amounts, women have higher blood alcohol levels than men, and the immediate effects occur more quickly and last longer.
- Women tend to have more body fat and less body fluid (average total body water: 52%) than men (average total body water: 61%).
- Women have a smaller quantity of dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down alcohol, so alcohol is metabolized more slowly in women than men.
- Premenstrual hormonal changes cause intoxication to set in faster during the days right before a woman gets her period.
- Birth control pills or other medications with estrogen increase intoxication.
- Alcohol also increases estrogen levels in women and men. Chronic alcoholism has been associated with loss of body hair and muscle mass, development of swollen breasts and shrunken testicles, and impotence.
How much do you drink?
The Standard Drink
The concept of a "standard drink" can help you calculate how much pure alcohol you are consuming. Different types of beer, wine and liquor contain varying amounts of alcohol (ethanol). Some have an ethanol content that only measures 3% of the total beverage while others contain as much as 90% ethanol.
A standard drink contains approximately ½ an ounce of ethanol.
- 10 to 12 ounces of beer
- 8 to 12 ounces of wine cooler
- 4 to 5 ounces of table wine
- 1.25 ounces of 80 proof spirits, or
- 1.0 ounce of 100 proof spirits
Blood Alcohol Content (BAC)
Your BAC (blood alcohol content) is the percentage of your blood volume that is alcohol. As people drink more alcohol, their BAC increases and the effects of alcohol become progressively more unpleasant and dangerous. If you choose to drink, engaging in low-risk drinking, or staying in the "green zone" in the table linked below will help you avoid the negative consequences of drinking.
BAC tables and online calculators can help you to estimate your blood alcohol concentration.
- Click here to use a BAC calculator.
- Check out these BAC calculator apps for iPhone and iPad users and these apps for Android users.
Hours to Zero BAC
Although you can raise your BAC quickly by slamming drinks, you will probably be surprised to learn how much time it takes for your body to eliminate alcohol from the bloodstream. BAC goes down at a slow and predictable rate. This is because your liver can only metabolize a predictable blood alcohol concentration per hour. The normal body will metabolize between .015 percent and .020 percent BAC per hour (less than one drink per hour). Only time will sober you up.
If you choose to drink, the way that you drink will have an effect on your level of risk. Moderate drinking, or maintaining a BAC of .05 % or less, will lead to more pleasure with less risk of negative consequences.
There are many strategies you can use to maintain a lower BAC. The following is a list of several ways to help you stay in control the next time you go out:
Decide what you drink: Alcohol content varies among drinks.
Space, Pace, Sip: Only allow yourself a certain amount of drinks within an allotted time. Sip, don't gulp. Slowing your rate of consumption will reduce BAC.
Dilute: Mixed drinks, where the concentration of alcohol has been diluted, lead to less rapid absorption.
Say no: It is sometimes difficult to say "no" to an offered drink after you have reached your limit. Plan how you will turn down drinks.
Recognize pressure: According to a study of the effect of peer pressure on college student drinking, students who believe they do not conform will change their rate of drinking to be comparable to their counterparts. Be your own person; make your own decisions.
More strategies for safer drinking
- Eat before and while you are drinking.
- Alternate alcohol and non-alcoholic drinks.
- Pace yourself. Slow down and take smaller sips.
- Don't use all your spending money one evening – bring just enough money with you for 1 or 2 drinks.
- Keep track of how much you drink.
- Watch your drink being poured so you can keep track of how much you're drinking.
- Reduce your standard drinks by choosing drinks that are not so strong.
- Be aware that many bar measures are very large – you may be drinking more standard drinks than you intend to.
- Don't mix alcohol with drugs – it can be deadly.