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Responsible Drinking - The Two Types of Alcohol Poisoning
First published on Distillique's website 2015 GM Bosman
One of the dangers involved with the consumption of alcohol is Alcohol Poisoning. Not really new information. But what many people do not know is that there is actually 2 types of alcohol poisoning.
The first of these is the “garden variety” alcohol poisoning – excessive consumption of alcohol, although this should more accurately be described as consumption of alcohol at an excessively high rate. In other words: Drinking too FAST !!!
When we drink alcohol, the liver is responsible for breaking the alcohol down (also called the oxidation of alcohol) to consumable components.
An enzyme in the liver called alcohol dehydrogenase strips electrons from ethanol to form acetaldehyde. Another enzyme, called aldehyde dehydrogenase, converts the acetaldehyde, in the presence of oxygen, to acetic acid, the main component in vinegar. The acetic acid can be used to form fatty acids or can be further broken down into carbon dioxide and water.
Once absorbed by the bloodstream, the alcohol leaves the body in three ways:
- The kidney eliminates 5 percent of alcohol in the urine
- The lungs exhale 5 percent of alcohol, which can be detected by breathalyzer devices
- The liver chemically breaks down the remaining alcohol into acetic acid.
As a rule of thumb, an average person can metabolize 15 ml of alcohol per hour. So, it would take approximately one hour to metabolize the alcohol from a 355 ml can of beer.
The Blood Alcohol Level increases when the body absorbs alcohol faster than it can metabolize it. So, because the body can only metabolize about one dose of alcohol per hour, drinking several drinks in an hour will increase your Blood Alcohol Level much more than having one drink over a period of an hour or more.
What is dangerous about this however is that as long as there is alcohol in the bloodstream, the liver only performs the first part of the breakdown or oxidation process, turning the ethanol to acetaldehyde. If the second process is not completed, the acetaldehyde starts to build up in the liver, and this concentrated acetaldehyde is toxic (and carcinogenic) for the body. In small concentrations it causes hangovers, in larger concentrations alcohol poisoning.
So the golden rule is to drink slowly, or to drink water or something non-alcoholic between drinks to give the liver chance to break down the alcohol already consumed.
The second form of alcohol poisoning, and probably the scarier of the two types, is caused by the consumption of excessively strong alcohol.
Anyone who has ever had a shot of an Overproof alcohol (think Stroh Rum or a very strong Mampoer or Witblits) will be familiar with that “dead-mouth” feeling, where you have to move your tongue around just to be sure it is still there.
This is aptly named, as a part of your mouth has just been killed.
Remember that alcohol is a solvent (hence its use in dyes, inks, perfumes, etc.) and at high percentages ABV (at more than 65% ABV) this solvent is concentrated. So if you drink an overproof spirit, the epithelial cells inside your mouth gets dissolved, stripped, destroyed – choose your verb of choice.
But that’s okay. Epithelial cells in our mouths regenerate quite quickly, and in an hour or so everything is back to normal.
The same is not true however for the cells lining our esophagus. These do not regenerate as quickly, and there are no nerves to tell us something is wrong. So if we drink an excessive amount of overproof alcohol, we literally strip off layer after layer of the cells in the esophagus until we are left with a bleeding sore inside it, which could lead to our death due to internal bleeding.
So for your own safety, make sure you know what you are drinking. If you have to drink something very strong (high ABV > 65%), then do so sparingly. And finally – keep in mind when you are producing your spirits that someone needs to drink it in the end, so be safe, be responsible, and …
Keep on Distilling !!!