Alcohol & Pop Culture Ep 1 – The Dangers of Drinking
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk Drugs, a podcast discussing the ins and outs of substance abuse. Let’s Talk Drugs is presented by ProjectKnow.com (that’s project k-n-o-w dot com), a website dedicated to providing accurate, easy-to-understand information about drugs to adolescents and their families. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, call us at to speak with a recovery support specialist about getting the help you need.
We’re on part one of a four-part series on the interaction between alcohol and pop culture. This first episode will take an in-depth look at alcohol abuse and its effects on the body and mind. Throughout the episode we will feature interview clips with a drug researcher, Dr. Olivier George.
Having a couple drinks in one night has become commonplace among socialites and introverts alike. It’s your birthday? Shot. You got a job? Shot. Graduation? Shot. Pay day? Shot. Take a sip for every score your team makes. Take a sip for every score your team misses. Difficult day? Wine. Beach lounging? Beer. Weekend? Liquor, but don’t forget that beer before liquor makes you sicker.
“It has been claimed to be the deadliest substance out of all commonly used recreational drugs—even more deadly than heroin and cocaine, which have widely recognized risks.”
These days you can’t turn on an electronic device without being bombarded by alcohol’s messages. Movies and television shows rarely conclude without at least one character enjoying a beer. Many believe that alcohol boosts their confidence and makes it easier for them to connect with others. In business practices, taking a potential client out for drinks is commonplace. Even some religions have adopted this mind-altering substance as a focal component of ceremony and tradition – Communion wine, wine as a healing substance in Hinduism, sanctifying the Sabbath with wine in Judaism, and using alcohol as an offering to the Gods in Chinese, Shinto, and ancient Egyptian religious practices.
People can always find a reason to drink, and while this central substance has persisted across cultures and across generations, its consequences are often overlooked. Alcohol’s legal status is a mask, disguising risks and providing a façade of safety. The reality behind this mask is not as enticing:
- The World Health Organization reports that nearly 6% of worldwide deaths in 2012 were related to alcohol consumption (1). It has been claimed to be the deadliest substance out of all commonly used recreational drugs- even more deadly than heroin and cocaine, which have widely-recognized risks (2).
- As of 2015, 25 states have laws that allow insurance companies to deny coverage to patients that are intoxicated at the time of medical admission. (3).
- Alcohol is estimated to be involved in nearly half of all sexual assaults (4, 5, 6) and is distinctly associated with domestic violence, particularly in exacerbating the severity (7, 8).
The statistics are overwhelming. So, why do we find ourselves so enamored? The answer is likely rooted in a variety of issues, including widespread heavy abuse, skewed perceptions of alcohol based on its legal status, pop culture glamorization of an alcoholic lifestyle, and the complicated past that led to our current drinking culture.
What is Alcohol Abuse? [3:50]
There is a difference between using alcohol and abusing alcohol. Many people use alcohol in moderation: one or two drinks, for example, on the weekends or during social events. But far too many others abuse alcohol – binge drinking, consuming alcohol several days a week, or using alcohol to avoid or escape their problems.
While there is no hard and fast way of distinguishing use from abuse, one simple question can help clarify: “Is drinking leading to negative life consequences?” These consequences may present themselves in a person’s psychological, work, academic, relationship, or social functioning. They may even present as blatant medical problems. If the answer to this question is “yes”, then there’s a good chance alcohol abuse is to blame.
In 2014, 6.4% of all people aged 12 or older in the U.S. had a diagnosed alcohol use disorder (9). The college population is particularly at risk, with nearly 20% of college students meeting the criteria for an alcohol use disorder (10). Binge drinking is a very problematic alcohol habit, especially among college students.
Much to many people’s surprise, binge drinking is defined as having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or higher, often reached by having 4 or more standard drinks for women and 5 or more standard drinks for men within two hours, though this amount varies depending on a person’s metabolism (11).
What is a standard drink? [5:29]
A standard drink is very specifically defined. Often, people count one glass of an alcoholic beverage as one drink, but by definition that one glass likely contains multiple standard drinks, especially when someone makes the drink themselves. This makes monitoring alcohol intake a little tricky. These are the actual definitions of a standard drink (12):
- 12 ounces of ~5% ABV beer
- 5 ounces of ~12% ABV wine
- 1.5 ounces of ~40% ABV hard liquor
The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain and Body [6:02]
Information surrounding the risks of excessive drinking is vast, yet many drinkers do not realize the extent of potential consequences nor how common they are. The distinct way that alcohol affects the brain not only makes it recreationally enthralling, but physically threatening. Alcohol is a unique substance because its effects change as you continue to drink. At first, it can feel like a stimulant (13), which is why the first couple drinks will often leave you energetic and euphoric.
In larger amounts, alcohol acts as a depressant, which is why you may feel more disconnected from your body and out of control after drinking more. Continue drinking and you will eventually reach the stage where you pass out or fall asleep.
Ultimately, alcohol reduces communication between brain cells, called neurons. The more you drink, the slower and more difficult neuronal communication becomes, which influences brain and nerve cell activity and interferes with the electrical signaling sent to our muscles (14). This results in very apparent behavioral effects including slurred speech, staggering, loss of emotional control, and in extreme cases the drinker may seem to be stuck in a sort of trance, have difficulty breathing, fall into a coma, or even die from alcohol poisoning.
Not to mention the pervasive physical damage that alcohol can cause: heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke, liver damage, pancreatitis (where the pancreas gets so painfully inflamed that it impedes digestion and releases toxic digestive fluids into the body), and immune suppression (making you more susceptible to diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, or simply catching the common cold) (15).
Alcohol has even been linked to various forms of cancer! Mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast cancer all have associations with drinking too much alcohol (15).
These primary effects are only part of the ethanol puzzle. Secondary, or indirect, effects can be just as dangerous and are sometimes the main cause behind common health problems found in long-term heavy drinkers. Secondary effects of alcohol include infections, irregular periods for women, and other seemingly benign sources of surprisingly devastating health consequences. Loss of appetite, for example, may not seem like a serious health concern, but it can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies that can cause permanent brain damage and dementia (16).
“Alcohol has even been linked to various forms of cancer! Mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast cancer all have associations with drinking too much alcohol.”
The effects of alcohol can range from euphoric relaxation to aimless hostility. Mood reactions tend to be enhanced and inappropriate, senses distorted, judgment impaired… Not to mention the dreaded whiskey dick. There seem to be all of these reasons not to drink, and yet bars are packed every Saturday night with patrons looking for pleasure in a bottle.
At least part of the answer lies in alcohol’s complicated relationship with society throughout history. From its ceremonial roots, drinking has transformed across time and civilizations into a casual pastime, to both the fun and the detriment of culture and health. ?
Next Time on Let’s Talk Drugs…
Episode 2 Coming Monday, May 22nd
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