What it Actually Means to be Drunk

Explore 'what does it mean to be drunk?' from physical effects to health risks, and beyond.

James Ekbatani
April 28, 2024

The Effects of Heavy Drinking

The consequences of heavy drinking are manifold, affecting individuals physically and mentally. This section explores the physical and mental toll of excessive alcohol consumption.

Physical Impact of Alcohol

Heavy drinking, defined for men as more than 4 drinks a day or 14-15 per week, and for women as more than 3 drinks a day or 7-8 per week, exerts a harmful effect on multiple bodily systems. The impact of alcohol extends to the brain, heart, liver, and pancreas, and can compromise the immune system. Furthermore, there is a direct association between heavy alcohol use and various types of cancers, including those in the mouth, throat, liver, breast, and intestines [1].

Specifically, alcohol can facilitate the entry of cancer-causing chemicals into cells more easily, increasing the risk of cancer. Moreover, the metabolic processes involved in breaking down alcohol produce harmful byproducts that can damage liver cells and other body tissues, leading to diseases like cirrhosis and pancreatitis.

Mental Impact of Alcohol

The mental implications associated with excessive alcohol consumption are equally concerning. Alcohol disrupts the brain's communication pathways, leading to cognitive impairments, memory problems, and decision-making issues.

In terms of mental health, heavy drinking can trigger conditions like depression and dementia. Notably, a study comparing heavy binge social drinkers (HD) and light social drinkers (LD) found similar levels of alcohol-induced impairment on psychomotor tasks such as the Digit Symbol Substitution Task (DSST) and the Grooved Pegboard, indicative of cognitive dysfunction [2].

Lastly, alcohol can also cause nerve damage, leading to a range of symptoms from numbness and abnormal sensations, to changes in blood pressure and organ function, further underscoring the diverse mental effects of heavy alcohol consumption.

In understanding what it means to be drunk, it's crucial to consider these physical and mental effects of alcohol. Recognizing these impacts can provide valuable insights into the potential dangers of heavy drinking and underscore the importance of moderation or abstinence.

Health Risks of Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking, particularly over a prolonged period, can have a significant impact on one's health. It can affect various bodily systems such as the brain, heart, and liver, and even increase the risk of certain cancers. Here, we examine some of the most concerning health risks associated with heavy drinking: liver damage, heart disease, and cognitive impairment.

Liver Damage

The liver is one of the most affected organs in the body when it comes to alcohol consumption. Alcohol is toxic to liver cells, and over time, it can lead to severe damage. This damage can manifest in several ways, such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is an early stage of alcoholic liver disease [1].

Prolonged heavy alcohol use can result in liver impairment, meaning the liver is unable to function properly. This can lead to a host of health problems, including jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), abdominal pain and swelling, chronic fatigue, and in severe cases, liver failure. It's important to note that once liver damage occurs, it's often irreversible.

Heart Disease

Heavy drinking is also associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Alcohol can affect the heart in several ways, including causing difficulties in pumping blood to the heart. This can eventually lead to conditions such as high blood pressure, heart failure, or even stroke [1].

Moreover, heavy drinking can lead to cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle weakens and is unable to pump blood efficiently. This can result in heart failure or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). Over time, these conditions can significantly increase the likelihood of death from heart disease.

Cognitive Impairment

One of the more insidious effects of heavy drinking is its impact on cognitive function. Alcohol affects the brain's communication pathways, interfering with the way the brain works. This can lead to impaired cognitive functions, such as memory problems, difficulty with decision-making, and problems with motor coordination.

Over time, heavy drinking can also lead to mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. It can even result in more severe conditions like dementia. Additionally, alcohol can cause nerve damage, which can lead to numbness or pain in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, and in severe cases, incontinence.

In conclusion, it's clear that heavy drinking poses significant health risks. Understanding these risks is crucial in addressing the question of 'what does it mean to be drunk?' and, more importantly, in making informed decisions about alcohol consumption.

Alcohol Consumption and Cancer Risk

While the inebriation journey often focuses on the immediate effects of alcohol, it's crucial to understand the potential long-term health risks associated with heavy drinking. One such risk is the association between alcohol consumption and certain types of cancer.

Types of Cancers Linked to Alcohol

Alcohol consumption is recognized as a known human carcinogen, with a clear correlation between alcohol intake and the risk of developing alcohol-associated cancers. Even low levels of alcohol consumption can moderately increase the risk of certain cancers [3].

There is a direct link between heavy alcohol use and various types of cancers. These include cancers in the:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Liver
  • Breast
  • Intestines

These risks are heightened with heavy, frequent alcohol consumption.

Mechanisms of Cancer Development

Alcohol can facilitate the entry of cancer-causing chemicals into cells more easily. This process can lead to the development and spread of cancerous cells in the body. The risk of developing cancer due to alcohol consumption can also be influenced by factors such as individual tolerance levels and the ability to limit drinking.

Moreover, chronic and heavy alcohol consumption can lead to a variety of health issues, such as liver diseases like alcohol hepatitis and cirrhosis. These conditions can further increase the risk of liver cancer [1].

Understanding the risks associated with heavy alcohol consumption, including the potential for increased cancer risk, is a vital part of understanding what it means to be drunk. It's important to note that these risks can be mitigated by limiting alcohol consumption and adhering to recommended guidelines for safe alcohol use.

Blood Alcohol Content and Impairment

When discussing the effects of alcohol, it's crucial to understand blood alcohol content (BAC) and how it relates to impairment. BAC measures the amount of alcohol in a person's bloodstream and is typically expressed as a percentage. The higher the BAC, the more impaired a person becomes. This impairment can lead to dangerous situations, especially while driving.

Legal Limits in Different Countries

The acceptable limit of blood alcohol content before a person is charged with a crime varies between countries, ranging from zero-tolerance to 0.08% [4]. For instance, in the United States, it is unlawful to drive a motor vehicle when the ability to do so is materially impaired due to alcohol or other drugs, including prescription medications. The BAC limit at which impairment is presumed is 0.08% for private drivers and 0.04% for commercial drivers.

On the other hand, the United Kingdom has set different prescribed limits for blood alcohol content in different regions. For example, the limit is 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath (or 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood) in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, in Scotland, the limit is lower at 22 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath (or 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood).

Country BAC Limit for Private Drivers BAC Limit for Commercial Drivers
United States 0.08% 0.04%
United Kingdom (England, Wales, Northern Ireland) 0.08% Not Specified
United Kingdom (Scotland) 0.05% Not Specified

Impaired Driving Consequences

Impaired driving, often resulting from high BAC, poses severe risks to oneself and others on the road. In the US, some states define two impaired driving offenses, with each carrying different penalties. The UK also imposes strict penalties for drunk driving, including zero-tolerance limits for certain illegal drugs and prescription medications. It's an offence to refuse to provide a specimen of breath, blood, or urine for analysis, with the penalties for refusing being the same as those for actual drunk driving.

Impaired driving can lead to accidents, causing damage, injuries, and even fatalities. It can also result in legal consequences, including fines, imprisonment, loss of driving privileges, and increased insurance rates. Therefore, understanding what it means to be drunk, and more importantly, the risks associated with high BAC, is essential for everyone.

Decision Making and Addiction

The effects of alcohol on the human body and mind are complex, and they can significantly influence an individual's decision-making capabilities. This impact is particularly notable when it comes to the consumption of alcohol and the potential progression towards addiction.

Impact on Decision Making

Alcohol intoxication can acutely alter cognitive abilities relevant to decision making. According to the alcohol myopia model, alcohol intoxication impairs cognitive processing of attentional cues, leading to an increased likelihood of engaging in aggressive behavior, risky sexual behavior, or alcohol-impaired driving [5].

The decision of whether or not to drive after drinking alcohol is a significant behavior associated with individual decision making. This choice can have negative outcomes such as accidents and fatalities. In fact, despite policies aimed at reducing alcohol-impaired driving, such as increasing the minimum legal drinking age and implementing per se standards for defining intoxication while operating a vehicle, the behavior of driving after drinking has persisted at an unacceptable level. This indicates the need for additional policies that target individual decision making.

Behavioral Economic Demand

Addiction to alcohol can have a profound effect on an individual's decision-making process. One such effect is the disruption of temporal discounting, which refers to the decrease in reward value of a commodity as a function of the delay in its receipt. Individuals with addiction may also be more likely to discount the value of a probabilistic reward relative to a certain one.

The relationship between alcohol consumption and its cost, known as behavioral economic demand, is another index of decision-making dysfunction in addiction. Individuals with alcohol use disorder exhibit higher levels of demand for alcohol and are less price sensitive than moderate drinkers.

Understanding the impact on decision making and the influence of behavioral economic demand is crucial in comprehending the full scope of what it means to be drunk. This knowledge can further aid in the development of policies and strategies to mitigate the negative outcomes associated with alcohol consumption and addiction.

Short and Long-term Effects of Alcohol

Understanding what it means to be drunk involves exploring both the short and long-term effects of alcohol consumption. It's important to note that these effects can significantly impact an individual's physical health, behaviors, and cognitive functions.

Short-term Effects

The immediate effects of alcohol consumption can vary significantly, depending on the amount consumed and the individual's tolerance levels. For some, alcohol can lead to reduced tension and lowered inhibitions. However, it also decreases reflexes and reaction time, potentially putting individuals at risk in situations requiring quick responses.

If a high amount of alcohol is consumed within a short period, it can lead to a series of unwanted side effects. These can include dehydration, headaches, nausea, and a heightened sense of anxiety, commonly referred to as "hangxiety".

Long-term Effects

The long-term effects of alcohol consumption are more far-reaching, often impacting various aspects of life. If these effects are experienced over an extended period, they could signify an alcohol abuse disorder, necessitating professional support.

Chronic and heavy alcohol consumption over a sustained period can lead to a variety of health issues. These can include liver diseases like alcohol hepatitis and cirrhosis, kidney damage, respiratory problems like pneumonia and ARDS, gastrointestinal tract inflammation, and skin conditions like psoriasis. Furthermore, alcohol abuse can impact fertility, bone quality, and oral health, among others [6].

The effects of alcohol on the body can vary depending on factors such as an individual's ability to limit drinking and tolerance levels. However, persistent alcohol consumption beyond recommended guidelines can lead to significant short and long-term effects on physical and mental health, including an increased risk of serious conditions like liver damage [6].

In conclusion, while alcohol might offer a temporary escape or a feeling of relaxation, its potential short and long-term effects underscore the importance of moderation and responsible consumption. Individuals struggling with alcohol consumption should seek professional help to mitigate the potential negative impacts on their health and well-being.