ALCOHOL: The pharmacology of booze and brains
IF there is one discovery that has arguably been the most influential in human history, it’s alcohol. Alcohol is up there with caffeine as one of the most widely used drugs in the world. It has helped shape human societies for millennia and influences nearly everyone either directly or indirectly. In fact, many anthropologists would argue that you can divide the human race into three distinct tribes – those who drink occasionally, those who actively avoid alcohol and those who seize any opportunity to drink it.
Most people will quietly organise their lives around access to or avoidance of the drug alcohol. Many animals like to drink, including monkeys and elephants, and it has been happening for millions of years. Alcohol has become so ingrained in our culture that traces of alcohol-use can be found in out DNA.
A quirk of evolution
Alcohol is a naturally produced substance which first entered our world millions of years ago via a symbiotic relationship between yeast and the cherry fruit. Yeast lived within the fruit which was at risk of being eaten by various insects. To protect itself and its host, yeast began to convert the sugars in cherry fruit and produce the poisonous bi-product, alcohol, which killed any cherry-hungry insects. When the fermenting fruit was discovered and eaten by man, our long-lasting relationship with alcohol began.
There is no doubt that alcohol is poisonous to humans too. In fact just 29mils of pure alcohol (ethanol) injected into the bloodstream would kill a man. It is also a very unique and hardcore drug. Pharmacology reveals that alcohol affects the same neurotransmitters in the brain that are targeted by drugs such as cocaine, heroin and Prozac.
The pharmacology of alcohol
For most people, alcohol has a powerful calming effect. Two shots of distilled booze is the equivalent of taking a mild tranquilizer. This is why alcohol is offered on planes soon after take-off. The ‘buzzing’ effect is a result of dopamine being triggered by alcohol, which is the same neurotransmitter that cocaine targets. Serotonin makes us feel good and is triggered by both alcohol and anti-depressants. Feeling like you can take on the world after a good few drinks or feeling severely ‘spaced out’ is the same sort of effect you would feel if you were to inject heroin.
Of course, alcohol affects each of us differently and our relationship with the drug changes as we change. Body size, fitness level, metabolism and gender are a few of many factors that determine how alcohol will affect our brain chemistry. However, a recommended weekly allowance has been calculated at 24 units for men and 14 units for women per week. Twenty-four units equals two bottles of wine; 14, a bottle and a half.
Personality type and social context are also huge factors when it comes to accessing one’s drinking habits. Knowing someone’s relationship with alcohol would reveal a lot about that person’s life. But for most of us, alcohol has formed a pivotal part of several social situations. Weddings, parties, graduations, funerals, promotions, birthdays and anniversaries are just a few of these. Drinking has almost become synonymous with celebrating.
The unfortunate hangover of all this is that there has been a huge increase in the number of people admitted to hospital for alcohol-related problems. This has caused much concern for those in the medical profession and a move has been made to create a new designer drug to replace alcohol. The idea is to be able to add a pill to a soft drink and enjoy all the benefits and euphoric effects of alcohol without being harmful or addictive.
Many pharmacologists would argue that if alcohol was ‘discovered’ today it would most certainly be banned or at least more controlled than it currently is. But perhaps we don’t really want to know that much about alcohol as a drug. In the end, many of us might choose to be blissfully boozed and ignorant.