Neuroscientist Brian Christie looks at a slide of the brain with student Anna Patten from New Zealand in the medical science lab at the University of Victoria.

LOWDOWN ON LIQUOR: A sip-by-sip breakdown of how drinking affects your body

  • May. 18, 2011 9:00 a.m.

The May long weekend is known for a lot of things. It’s the unofficial start to summer for many, a chance to break out the camping gear and an opportunity to lounge on a sunlit patio.

But it’s also one of the busiest weekends of the year for alcohol consumption.

Last year in Greater Victoria, the Victoria Day weekend was huge for B.C. Liquor Store sales, with $1.027 million spent in the three days leading up to the holiday Monday.

With the forecast calling for sun and Canucks playoff hockey games on the minds of many, alcohol consumption isn’t expected to decline this May long weekend.

But while we can put a number to the business of booze, the effects it has on holiday drinkers is more difficult to measure.

Brian Christie, associate professor of medical science at the University of Victoria knows well the physical implications involved in having a few brews or chilled glasses of Chardonnay.

Christie, who has spent a decade researching the effects of alcohol on the brain, breaks down the physical process booze has on our bodies – from a neuroscientist’s perspective.

“Once it’s in, it can really go anywhere,” Christie says of ethanol, a meniscus substance that is the drug in your drink. “It doesn’t have any barriers.”

Alcohol enters the stomach lining and gets into the blood stream, then travels to the brain via the vascular system. It suppresses excitatory nerve activity – how cells communicate with each other – by increasing the effects of inhibitory neurotransmitters – those responsible for focus and communication.

“When you’re drinking, you’re directly blocking receptors in the excitatory side of the brain, preventing them from functioning properly and it increases the inhibitory side,” he says.

The result: movement tends to be gross, lacking fine detail. Drinkers do not respond to stimuli as quickly.

The typical drinker vs. the binger

Most moderate drinkers (2-3 drinks at a time, or below the low-risk guidelines listed below) experience loss of focus, with decreased speed of movement and some subtle effects on memory. Alcohol, once used as anesthetic, functions in the same way as many modern anesthetics: by increasing inhibition, lowering expectation and causing the drinker to pass out. When a binge drinker (more than five drinks at one time) blacks out, they have blocked the nerve cells normally responsible for encoding information from helping retrieve memory.

How many brain cells really die?

While ethanol is a teratogen (a substance that kills brain cells), a binge drinker’s more immediate risk is from passing out in their own vomit.

Curiously, when the most brain cells die from ethanol isn’t during the drinking event, rather, in the five to seven days that follow.

“When you’re drinking, you’re blocking cell receptor proteins. When you stop drinking they become unblocked, hyper-excitable and very active,” Christie says. “It’s during this ‘rebound affect’ when they’re over-active when you can get too much calcium coming through them that can activate these apoptosis (cells dying) activities.”

To quantify the loss: “If you drink persistently in that fashion, that’s when you’re going to start seeing the damage. And it’s slow, progressive damage. You’re probably losing thousands at a time and you’ve got billions.”

Low-risk, high-risk liquor

In an effort to educate the public and lower the 21,000 annual alcohol-related hospitalizations in the province, the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. provides low-risk drinking guidelines.

“I think we should be informed that with every extra drink we have per day, on average, we increase our risk of a whole range of cancers,” said centre director Tim Stockwell. He added there are 60 ways alcohol can damage you.

“(That’s) unlike heroin, which doesn’t harm any organ in the body, although if you take too much of it, you’ll stop breathing and die.”

Limiting intake on any one day to four standard drinks for men or three for women, with a weekly maximum of 15 and 10, respectively, is one way to mitigate the risk.

To find out whether your level of drinking is considered low or high risk, take the “Alcohol Reality Check” survey at www.carbc.ca.

nnorth@saanichnews.com

Did you know?

Alcohol’s effect on the…

• Skin: flushes

• Kidneys: lowers their capacity to reabsorb water; increases urination

• Lymbic system: causes memory loss or loss of control over memory

• Cerebellum: decreases motor skills

• Brain stem: lowers heart rate and breathing; triggers vomit reflex

• Hypothalamus, pituitary gland: affects sexual arousal and performance. “You get this paradox,” says euroscientist Brian Christie,  “an increase in sexual desire with increased alcohol consumption, but your performance declines.”

• Immune system: While rare, welts or rashes may come and go transiently

Top 20 days for liquor sales at B.C. Liquor Stores in 2010:

While the warmer weather brings with it full pub patios across the CRD, nine of the 10 busiest days for sales at B.C.’s government liquor stores all fall during the holiday season.

1) Dec. 23, 2010 – $1,124,000 in sales recorded by B.C.L.S.

2) Dec. 24, 2010 – $1,086,000

3) Dec. 22, 2010 – $802,000

4) Dec. 31, 2010 – $758,000

5) Dec. 18, 2010 – $721,000

6) Dec. 17, 2010 – $697,000

7) Dec. 21, 2010 – $656,000

8) Dec. 20, 2010 – $602,000

9) Oct. 9, 2010 – $597,000

10) Dec. 11, 2010 – $565,000

11) April 3, 2010 – $563,000

12) Dec. 10, 2010 – $554,000

13) July 30, 2010 – $546,000

14) Oct. 8, 2010 – $546,000

15) June 30, 2010 – $545,000

16) May 21, 2010 – $532,000

17) Sept. 3, 2010 – $517,000

18) April 1, 2010 – $513,000

19) Nov. 26, 2010 – $508,000

20) Nov. 19, 2010 – $502,000

Part of our series on alcohol use in Greater Victoria

LOWDOWN ON LIQUOR: A sip-by-sip breakdown of how drinking affects your body

CULTURE OF DRINKING: Why smart people drink more and stay up later

COSTS OF ALCOHOL: Debate continues about whether alcoholism is a disease, but there’s no question that society bears a heavy price

UNBORN’S UNFAIR BURDEN: Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and the people devoted to understanding the invisible, pervasive condition caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.

 

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