The Physiology Of Alcoholism
Some adults can drink alcohol-containing beverages in moderate amounts without experiencing significant side effects. There is evidence that having a glass of wine each day may be beneficial for the heart and digestive process.
Alcohol is a potent source of energy and calories. The ready availability of calories in alcohol gives an individual—alcoholic or nonalcoholic—a jolt of energy. These are, however, called empty calories, because alcohol contains no nourishment—vitamins, minerals, or other substances that the body needs. Some of the symptoms of alcoholism are the result of this phenomenon. The alcoholic can obtain the calories he needs from alcohol, but alcohol does not contain the nourishment his body needs to maintain such functions as the repair or replacement of cells.
Normally when alcohol enters the body it is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and distributed to all parts of the body in the blood. The alcohol is detoxified or broken down by first being changed into acetaldehyde when it flows through the liver. Acetaldehyde is a chemical that can cause painful reactions in the body. A second reaction in the liver alters acetaldehyde to form acetate, which is then changed into sugar. The liver of the alcoholic, however, is abnormally slow at the second-stage reaction.
Scientists have suggested that this conversion of acetaldehyde into acetate in the livers of alcoholics occurs at about half the speed that it does in the livers of nonalcoholics. Acetaldehyde thus accumulates in the bodies of alcoholics and causes many of the symptoms they exhibit, such as staggering gait, shaking hands, blinding headaches, and hallucinations.
Acetaldehyde is a very reactive and dominant chemical. In body cells it can block the normal chemical processes that should occur, including those in the brain. It can react with any other chemical in the immediate vicinity and produce byproducts of unpredictable reaction. Often the result of high levels of acetaldehyde is pain. The alcoholic may enter a cycle of drinking which leads to pain that is eased only by further drinking. The symptoms exhibited by some alcoholics when they begin to enter sobriety are collectively called delirium tremens or DTs. These symptoms can include hallucinations, illusions, trembling, and sweating.
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