I Drink Therefore I am

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 Hangover

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. Although any chemical substance that makes us feel good has the potential of becoming addictive. People can even be addicted to running for the endorphin release.

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.

The best way for alcoholics to turn over a new leaf is to sign up for alcohol and drug addiction rehab programs.

** More Quite Interesting Histories **


Galen (name), meaning: "Curious One". A lover of language, human ingenuity and the forces of the universe. Hugely drawn towards the mysterious and unknown. Regular laughter and escapism essential.

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2 Responses

  1. Chadwin says:

    Your last paragraph is very interesting, what does it say about the human race when we can look to the past and see something that has had more negative effects on society more than positive and say that had it come around today we would of banned it and not banned it now despite the reality of its effects.

    my comment is not geared to alcohol specifically but everything that exists today that society refuses to change due to the logistics involved

  2. Galen says:

    Thanks for the comment Chadwin.

    My guess is that even though the pharmacology of alcohol is nothing new, it is still not common knowledge. It has also become so ingrained in our culture that, if put to a vote, say, many people might feel that they couldn’t function without it and would still choose to drink despite knowing its harmful effects.

    One could point to the height of the Roman and Greek civilizations where alcohol was associated with prosperity and wealth. People still died from drinking it but this wasn’t enough to regulate its use. Today it’s not much different. Being a connoisseur of wine and owing an impressive collection in a cellar is a sign of social status. Others drink for the escape, and many do so to be accepted by peer groups.

    I think a lot of it has to do with cultural evolution. For example, while something like wine was relished in Europe, the Chinese had no interest in it and stuck with tea. If the opposite had happened in history we might all very well be living in a relatively alcohol-free society.

    What I find interesting is how alcohol is a more ‘socially acceptable’ drug than something like cannabis, which has been around for nearly as long but has effects that are far less severe and harmful than alcohol. A stigma seems to exist over other substances while alcohol remains very easy to obtain and abuse.

    For most of us we at least have the choice. But again, as human beings, we will likely seek out any substance that makes us feel good and worry about the effects later.

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