Alcohol is the most widely used drug in the world, and is officially the most dangerous drug used in New Zealand, costing the country around $5 billion annually.
Alcohol is acceptable, affordable, available and normalised. It’s what we do as a nation. We are a drinking culture, and our youth are part of this. The trouble is it harms teenagers much more quickly than it does adults and research published in 2009 shows it impairs the functioning of the adolescent brain after a year of regular, high, use.
Scientists are now saying there is no safe amount for a person under the age of 18 to drink.
What is it?
Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the messages between the brain and the body. It also means that it usually adds to any depression a person may have.
Alcohol is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream from the stomach, and then distributed around the body, including the brain. It is broken down in the liver and excreted through urine. An adult can metabolise (process) one standard drink of alcohol an hour.
How drunk (intoxicated) you get from alcohol, depends on how much you drink and the percentage of alcohol in the drink. (We use standard drinks to compare this). Plus:
Type of alcohol – Spirits, wine, beer… (usually around 40% alcohol, 12%, 4%).
Weight/Size – how drunk you get depends on the concentration (amount) of alcohol in your body. So smaller people get drunk faster, from less alcohol. Also alcohol is more easily absorbed into muscle than into fat, leaving less in the bloodstream. Therefore an athlete with muscles, will not be as drunk as a person of the same size whose body mass is largely fat.
Gender – Women will typically get intoxicated faster than men because: they usually weigh less, and have a higher percentage of fat than muscle. Also, men have an enzyme in their stomach, called alcohol dehydrogenase, that breaks down some of the alcohol before it gets to the bloodstream. Woman have very little of this enzyme.
Short term effects
Drinking too much is the main problem
The next step is we get clumsy and lack coordination. Many get more violent, and get into fights. Judgment is impaired. Some will then drive drunk, some have unprotected sex. Your vision may blur and speech slur. You may get double vision, feel the room is spinning, suffer blackouts; and if too much alcohol has been consumed for the body to cope with, you may vomit, which is the first sign of alcohol poisoning. This can even lead to death.
How much is too much?
Scientists tell us that 4 standard drinks at a time is safe for an average sized adult female.
And 6 standard drinks on one occasion is usually safe for adult males.
One standard drink is 10 grams of alcohol = 1 shot glass of spirits (30mls @ 40% alcohol)
= 1 can of beer (300mls @ 4% alcohol)
= 1 small glass of wine (100mls @ 12.5% alcohol)
Drinking any more than the safe amount (above), in one session, is called binge drinking.
This is a dangerous way to drink and in the longer term harms the brain and body.
How can we speed up how much we process? We can’t.
How can we recover quicker from a hangover? We can’t.
There is a much greater risk of becoming an alcoholic if you have someone in your family-tree who was alcoholic. It is highly genetic, and also depends on environmental factors.
Are able to stay awake and drink for longer than adults;
yet only need half as much as an adult to suffer the same effect.
Are more likely to get depression and feel suicidal; and
it affects their social development.
The earlier that alcohol is used the greater the likelihood it will escalate.
Youth who use before age 15 are:
5 times more likely to go on to abuse alcohol (than those who wait to 21)
10 times more likely to be involved in a serious fight;
7 times more likely to be involved in a crash;
12 times more likely to be injured in an accident; and that
one third of young girls are drunk when they become pregnant.
Binge drinking and youth
Alcohol affects adolescents differently to adults, as the pace of change going on in the brain mean they are more vulnerable and the potential for harm greater.
Yet, in the 16-18 age group:
24% have a substance abuse disorder;
50% are regular drinkers; and
44% risked acute harm last month, as a result of their drinking.
Long term binge drinking – for more than a year – harms developing brains!
Even 20 STDs a month, for more than a year, harms brain functioning
it reduces who the person had the potential to become;
making it harder to learn new material and to remember;
retards language competence and academic achievement; and impairs executive functioning, especially for girls.
Foetal Alcohol spectrum disorder
Alcohol is particularly toxic to the foetus, especially in the 3rd to 9th week of pregnancy.
New born babies may have: low birth weight which is not caught up; abnormalities affecting the heart, hearing and urogenital defects; mild retardation, and as they grow up may exhibit a number of learning and behavioural disorders such as ADHD.