Alcohol can be both a tonic and a poison for the body.

In recent years, debate has been heated about alcohol's impact on health. Some researchers claim that moderate drinking actually makes you healthier than those who do not drink. "Moderate drinking," as defined by the U.S. Department of agriculture and the dietary guidelines for Americans, is no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.

One drink is considered to be 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits (hard liquor). Each of these contains about 12 to 14 grams of alcohol.

The active ingredient in alcoholic beverages is ethanol, a molecule that directly affects the stomach, brain, heart, gall bladder and liver. It also affects levels of lipids and insulin in the blood.

The Benefits

If consumed moderately, alcohol can lower a person's chances of having a heart attack, ischemic (clot-caused) stroke, or other forms of cardiovascular disease. This effect is found in both men and women.

Alcohol raises levels of the "good" cholesterol, HDL, which provides protection against heart disease.In addition, moderate drinkers (as opposed to non-drinkers or heavy drinkers), are more likely to be at a healthy weight, get 7 to 8 hours of sleep at night and exercise regularly, according to a 1985 national health interview survey.

However, not everyone is an optimum candidate for these benefits. The benefits of alcohol consumption are found to be most applicable to older people who are at high absolute risk of coronary heart disease and ischemic stroke and at low risk for injury, cirrhosis, and other alcohol-related diseases. In contrast, men and women under the age of 40 who have relatively low absolute risk of dying from alcohol-related diseases but a high absolute risk of dying from injury, experience raised risks from even relatively low alcohol-consumption.

In a nutshell, for men in their forties and postmenopausal women, the benefits of light-to-moderate drinking begin to outweigh the risks and continue to do throughout their sixties, seventies, and eighties.

So, while alcohol may protect a 16-year-old boy from cardiovascular disease, his initial chances of dying of a heart attack as a teenager are exceptionally small. For him, alcohol-related traffic accidents are more likely at his age and therefore make moderate alcohol consumption a larger risk than benefit.

For this reason, the debate over the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption is crucial. Everyone reacts to alcohol different based on drinking patterns, experience, genetics, health conditions and personality. Heavy drinkers are advised to lower their consumption levels, whereas non-drinkers are advised not to begin drinking without first speaking to a physician.

The Risks

Despite the possible benefits of moderate drinking, many people do not stop at just one or two drinks.According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 14 million Americans meet the criteria for alcohol abusers or alcoholism.

Even with moderate drinking, alcohol can disrupt sleep, cloud judgement, or interact dangerously with a variety of medications, including acetaminophen, antidepressants, painkillers and sedatives. Moderate drinkers are even at risk of the addictive qualities of the drug, especially if they have a family history of alcoholism.

A person's Blood Alcohol Content is the amount of alcohol present in the blood. When police administer breathalyzer tests, they are taking a sample of air from deep within the lungs, which provide a reliable estimate of a person's BAC if blood cannot be drawn.

Alcohol is a depressant drug. It begins to affect you immediately once it is ingested. The following chart provides a synopsis of effects cause by rising BAC:

BAC Effects
Blood Alcohol Content Effect on the Body
0.02 Slight mood changes
0.06 Lowered inhibition, impaired jugement, decreased rational decision-making abilities
0.1 Legally drunk, deterioration of reaction time and control
0.15 Impaired balance, movement and coordination, difficulty standing, walking, and talking
0.2 Decreased pain and sensation, erratic emotions
0.3 Diminished reflexes, semi-conscious
0.4 Loss of consciousness, very limited reflexes
0.5 Death

To determine your BAC, count the number of drinks you have had (Remember that 1 drink = 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor) and reference the charts below. There are two charts, one for men and one for women, since women reach higher BACs while consuming the same amount of alcohol as men due to differences in body water and fat percentages.

BAC chart for Men
Men
  Approximate Blood Alcohol Percentage
Drinks Body Weight in Pounds  
  100 120 140 160 180 200 220 240  
0 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
Only Safe Driving Limit
1 .04 .03 .03 .02 .02 .02 .02 .02 Driving
Skills
Significantly
Affected
Possible
Criminal
Penalties
2 .08 .06 .05 .05 .04 .04 .03 .03
3 .11 .09 .08 .07 .06 .06 .05 .05
4 .15 .12 .11 .09 .08 .08 .07 .06
5 .19 .16 .13 .12 .11 .09 .09 .08
6 .23 .19 .16 .14 .13 .11 .10 .09 Legally
Intoxicated

Criminal
Penalties
7 .26 .22 .19 .16 .15 .13 .12 .11
8 .30 .25 .21 .19 .17 .15 .14 .13
9 .34 .28 .24 .21 .19 .17 .15 .14
10 .38 .31 .27 .23 .21 .19 .17 .16 Death Possible
Subtract .01% for each 40 minutes of drinking.
One drink is 1.25 oz. of 80 proof liquor, 12 oz. of beer,
or 5 oz. of table wine.

 

BAC Chart for Women
Women
  Approximate Blood Alcohol Percentage
Drinks Body Weight in Pounds  
  90 100 120 140 160 180 200 220 240  
0 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 Only Safe Driving Limit
1 .05 .05 .04 .03 .03 .03 .02 .02 .02 Driving Skills
Significantly
Affected
Possible
Criminal
Penalties
2 .10 .09 .08 .07 .06 .05 .05 .04 .04
3 .15 .14 .11 .10 .09 .08 .07 .06 .06
4 .20 .18 .15 .13 .11 .10 .09 .08 .08
5 .25 .23 .19 .16 .14 .13 .11 .10 .09
6 .30 .27 .23 .19 .17 .15 .14 .12 .11 Legally
Intoxicated

Criminal
Penalties
7 .35 .32 .27 .23 .20 .18 .16 .14 .13
8 .40 .36 .30 .26 .23 .20 .18 .17 .15
9 .45 .41 .34 .29 .26 .23 .20 .19 .17
10 .51 .45 .38 .32 .28 .25 .23 .21 .19 Death Possible
Subtract .01% for each 40 minutes of drinking.
One drink is 1.25 oz. of 80 proof liquor, 12 oz. of beer, or 5 oz. of table wine.

Short-term effects

Although alcohol may give you a feeling of happiness and aroused senses, the drug suppresses the central nervous system - leading to slurred speech, slowed reactions, and, ultimately, unconsciousness. During intoxication, a person's blood pressure, pulse, and respiration decrease as the circulatory and nervous systems slow down.

Even in small doses, alcohol can inhibit REM sleep, leaving you tired and groggy, and also cause the damaging and death of brain cells and the cells that support them by providing energy and nutrients.

In addition, the immune system is impaired for up to 72 hours after a night of heavy drinking, weakening the body's ability to fight off disease and sickness. Drinkers often experience more colds for this reason. Some drinkers also experience malnutrition, since alcohol blocks the absorption of essential nutrients in the body. One of these nutrients is folic acid, which helps build DNA and contribute to proper cell division. Alcohol blocks its absorption and also deactivates the nutrient in the blood. Therefore, doctors suggest drinkers take 600mg of folic acid daily to counteract this and lower cancer risk.

Long-term Effects

Heavy alcohol consumption can adversely affect every organ in your body. There is a very long list of diseases and disorders associated with heavy drinking, and a few of them are:

The abuse of alcohol, even short-term through binge drinking, is associated with serious risks and dangers. Those who choose to drink should always monitor their level of consumption and blood alcohol content and make sure to always be in a safe place while drinking. Also, speak with a doctor about vitamins and other supplements you could be taking to help counteract the effects of alcohol on your body.