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It is easy to think that alcohol is just a normal part of life and growing up. It’s everywhere – tv shows, movies, billboards, even family events and parties. Studies show how alcohol is everywhere, and consumed by almost everybody. The 2015 (yeah, we know, studies don’t get updated that frequently) United States National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that of Americans over the age of 12 in the past 30 days, more than half used alcohol at least once, one quarter (25%) reported binge drinking, and 6.5% reported heavy drinking. In Texan teens, 60% reported having ever had one drink of alcohol in their lifetime, 27% reported that they currently drink alcohol, and 12% reported binge drinking. As you’ll read about in this article, even though alcohol use is widespread, any use of it – from once in a while to everyday – can have serious health consequences. You need to know how anything you take – from food to medicine and even drugs and alcohol – can affect your health so that you can make the right decisions for you.

First things first, the science of it all. The alcohol that people drink is “ethyl alcohol” or “ethanol”. It’s produced by fermentation (yeast and other bacteria convert sugars into alcohol – this is why chemistry class is important!). Alcohol is found in beer, liquor, wine. There are other types of alcohol as well which you can find in cleaning products, rubbing alcohol, medications, antifreeze, or in fuel. These are NOT for drinking however and can have serious, immediate bad health effects if consumed – including death, in some cases.

One drink is considered 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This can be found in 12 ounces of beer (a small can), 5 ounces of wine (a very small pour), 1.5 ounces of liquor, or 8 ounces of malt liquor (though this usually comes in “40s”). So how much is too much? That’s a tricky question to answer – it may be different for all people. However, the CDC states that moderate alcohol use is considered to be no more than 7 drinks total in 1 week and no more than 2 in any day for women; and no more than 14 in one week and no more than 4 in any one day for men. Binge drinking is when someone drinks a lot of alcohol in a short period of time – this is more than 5 (or 4 for girls) in about 2 hours. Keep an eye on the people around you – you and they may be surprised by how quickly we can slip into alcohol misuse and heavy drinking.

  • So why worry about how much is too much? When you drink, alcohol travels to the stomach, the small intestine and gets absorbed into your blood stream and brain. It then can slow the functions of your body down. Any amount of alcohol can slow your reaction time, make you less coordinated, impair your vision, and most importantly, make it harder to think clearly and make good decisions. Getting drunk is your body’s reaction to drinking too much alcohol at one time. We’ve all seen videos, movie scenes, or maybe even family members or friends who are acting a fool because they’re drunk. When you’re drunk, your brain function is impaired – you can’t think straight, you don’t act like yourself, and you can make some baaaaaaad decisions. Your blood vessels dilate and you may feel warmer – people’s cheeks can get flushed. Worst case scenario – you may get into a car crash or a physical fight, have unprotected sex, or get injured in another way. These life events don’t disappear when you sober up – you have to deal with the consequences, and feeling super sick afterwards especially if you’re hungover.

    Have you ever heard of someone needing their stomach pumped? Sometimes, too much alcohol can be poisonous to the body in high quantities. If you drink enough to have alcohol poisoning, you may need your stomach pumped – believe me, it’s not pretty. It takes about an hour for your liver to filter alcohol, so if you have more than one drink in an hour, it can give your liver more than it can handle. Your body is pretty great at absorbing alcohol, but it takes a lot longer to get it out of your system. If the alcohol builds up in your body, it can make you super sick. Signs of this can include: feeling confused, throwing up, passing out or “blacking out”, and much worse – having seizures, not breathing fast enough to get oxygen to your brain and maybe turning blueish or very pale. If you’re the one drinking, you may not realize you’re experiencing these symptoms. If someone you know is having these symptoms, it is time to call 911 right away, and do not leave your friend alone. You or that person may not actually get their stomach pumped, but you will get intense medical treatment to make sure that you do not die.

    The short-term effects of alcohol use like mistakes caused by impaired judgement and injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes and falls, violence, and risky sexual behaviors, can also have long-term consequences. Think what could happen to you if you got in a drunk-driving accident, or what would happen to the people in the other vehicle. Think of the disease and even pregnancy that could happen if you engage in unprotected sex while under the influence of alcohol. Better to think it through beforehand!

    There are also long-term consequences you could have with using alcohol over longer periods of time. Drinking for a few years can lead to chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease including cancer, cancer in other places like breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon. You can also experience increased depression and anxiety or alcohol dependence or alcoholism. We’ll dive into these a little bit more below.

There is evidence that shows that the brain doesn’t finish developing until people are in their mid-20s (25 is an accepted average) or maybe even in the 30s. This means that while you are in your teens and early 20s, your brain is still developing, growing, making new connections, learning new things. Each time a new memory is created or skill learned, stronger connections – or synapses – are built between brain cells. And we know that young people’s brains build synapses faster than adult brains.

The last part of the brain to develop is called the frontal lobe – it is in charge of judgement and impulse control. So, sure, your brain as a teenager is sophisticated and smart and great at taking in new information and learning lots of things with a sharp memory. However, because of the delay in the frontal lobe development, people in their teens and early 20s are more likely to make risky decisions and less likely to consider the consequences of things that you are going to do. Taking in any toxic substance (remember, alcohol can be considered a poison), can interfere with this development! Alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells, but it cuts off the connections between neurons. This affects motor coordination (stumbling when you try to walk), speech function (slurring your words), and of course decision making (like picking a fight with a good friend, orgoing home with someone you otherwise wouldn’t etc.). Not only can it mess with you in the moment, but overtime your brain may learn the process of drinking alcohol and develop an addition to it – even if you’re only having a few drink every now and then.

When someone is called an alcoholic, what does that mean? Physicians now use a diagnosis called “alcohol use disorder” to diagnose any individual who may experience unhealthy physical or mental health outcomes, or serious impact on their social wellbeing due to alcohol use. Previously we referred to two categories – alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, but we have since recognized that alcohol misuse is more of a spectrum from mild to severe. People with alcohol use disorder may have problems keeping up with responsibilities at school, home, or work. Their alcohol use may cause relationship problems (with parents, friends, other loved ones) but they continue to drink. They may have legal trouble because of their alcohol use or engage in risky behaviors despite being “under the influence” – such as driving. People with more severe alcohol use disorder may crave alcohol, have difficulty limiting or stopping drinking, and continue to drink even though it causes problems to their physical or emotional health. At this point, their body “needs” the alcohol to function because their nervous system has adjusted to exposure to heavy alcohol use and has been re-wired. Basically, their body is addicted to it.

Now you’ve learned how alcohol can act as a depressant – slowing reaction times, impairing decision making etc…and imagine if you mixed those effects with an energy pumping drink like caffeine, stimulants, and other sugars. The result is pretty scary. The caffeine in the drink can mask the depressant effect of alcohol, so you may be able to drink more than you usually would without feeling tired or sleepy. When you can’t feel the effects of the alcohol, you may end up consuming way more than you normally would. You can imagine how that might lead to poisoning or other serious consequences. According to the CDC, drinkers who consume alcohol mixed with energy drinks are 3 times more likely to binge drink than those who don’t. They are also about twice as likely to engage in sex when they normally would not and to report riding with a driver who was under the influence of alcohol. If you are old enough to drink, don’t mix alcohol and energy drinks.

As we’ve discussed, alcohol use for teens can mess up your brain, your body, and your social world. It’s important too to discuss legal issues associated with drinking. Remember, it is ILLEGAL for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase or consume alcohol. If you get caught drinking, you could get into serious legal trouble. If you get pulled over for drunk driving – driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI), you may get a lot more than you bargained for when you started drinking – a criminal record, jail time, driver’s license restrictions, or large fines.

It is important to talk about alcohol use with your family and your physician. It may not be affecting you personally, but maybe a friend or family member. Alcohol’s effects can reach far beyond the person who’s downing the beer. As you get through your teens and early 20s, you need to learn how to keep yourself safe. When it comes to drinking, no alcohol may be the best option. If you are ever wondering whether you or someone you care about has a problem with alcohol, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Have you ever forgotten what happened while you were drinking?
  • Have you ever gotten into a fight, hurt yourself, or done something you later regretted because of drinking?
  • Have you ever gotten into trouble with the police while drinking?
  • Have you ever driven a car after you were drinking?
  • Have you ever missed school or work because you were hungover?
  • Do you drink by yourself?
  • Do you feel like you need to drink in order to have fun?
  • Do you go to parties or social events just because you know there’s going to be alcohol there?
  • Is drinking constantly on your mind?
  • Do you ever feel like you need to drink in order to have fun?

If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, you or the person you care about may have a drinking problem, and you should speak with your physician, parent/guardian, or another trusted adult about getting help.

There are a few places you can go for help and support:

  • A counselor – Legacy has an addiction services team that can help you or a loved one overcome an alcohol use disorder
  • Alcoholics Anonymous – a group of individuals who come together to help each other solve their problems with alcohol and achieve sobriety
  • You can call:
    • Alcohol and Drug Helpline 800-527-5344
    • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence: 800-622-2255
    • National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service: 800-662-4357

There are a few emergency situations where you should let someone know sooner rather than later:

  • Is someone demonstrating signs of alcohol poisoning? Call 911 immediately. Do not leave an unconscious person alone
  • Never get in the car to drive if you have been drinking, or get a ride from someone who has been drinking. Use a ride-share app, call a trusted adult, or just stay put!

Remember, you can share any of the information you learned in this section with other people! Spread the word about alcohol use – the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can help keep yourself and others safe in a world where we have normalized drinking and may not know the truth about it.