Science of Intoxication: What really happened at the pregame

    Illustration by Claire Anderson / North by Northwestern.

    A “pharmacological hand-grenade” sounds hard to come by. Maybe something you’d scrounge for on the black market or something Angelina Jolie is keeping third-world orphans from stepping on while scampering through the jungle.

    It’s been verified, though, that this lethal, unpredictable substance is actually in Evanston. Chances are it’s in your closet or your roommate’s fridge. It’s definitely at The Keg. The “pharmacological hand-grenade,” as some scientists refer to it, is actually alcohol.

    “It’s the messiest possible drug because it affects the system at different rates and different doses,” says Dr. Kevin Strang, a physiology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The chemical composition of ethyl alcohol gives it an all-access pass to almost every system in the body. “Alcohol’s small size and its hydrophobic nature make it able to go anywhere it wants.”

    Whether you sip or shotgun to begin a Monday night, alcohol first reaches your bloodstream through the stomach and the walls of the small intestines. A full stomach will slow down the absorption of alcohol, another convincing reason to stop by BK before a night out.

    After that first shot, you may be inclined to text every hook-up in your contacts, but your body’s first instinct? Get that poisonous chemical out of your system. Some of the breakdown of alcohol occurs in the lungs and kidneys. Blame these organs when you fail a breathalyzer test or dance, rather than stand, in line for the bathroom.

    Illustration by Claire Anderson / North by Northwestern.

    The real champion, however, is your liver. After your drink hits your bloodstream and then your brain, your liver converts the ethanol into acetaldehyde (which is, well, toxic). It runs in the same social circle as formaldehyde, used in the embalming process. The liver must convert it into acetic acid and from there turn it into energy or, unfortunately, fat. If you don’t drink much, the recycling process matches the disposal of the ethanol. But, alas, you can’t let that open bar go to waste, and it’s likely your body won’t be able to keep up. “If you oversaturate the capacity of the body organs to metabolize, you produce toxicity,” says Dr. Bassam Shakhashiri, a chemist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

    By this point, your liver is trying to keep you from being poisoned and you probably have to pee again. Your brain functions are also becoming more and more unreliable. “It’s basically your body doing what your brain is not telling it to do,” says Dr. Aryeh Herman, a post-doctoral researcher at Yale University. Now you have a quasi-excuse for falling out of cabs, stumbling into the bushes outside of Lisa’s and dancing on tables at the Keg. (Maybe not that last one. Especially if photos are involved.)

    Since alcohol “can soak every structure,” according to Strang, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what goes on. “Very generically, there’s a general depression of brain function.” The real alcoholic fireworks occur in your brain; alcohol doesn’t directly affect your muscles or senses. Instead, your brain is controlling those aspects of your body, causing everything to go haywire. Cue stumbling, crying, spinning, euphoria, depression or unconsciousness, depending on how many drinks you’ve had.

    Alcohol affects synapses, which allow information to be passed to neurons and other cells in the body. It inhibits glutamate signaling and increases GABA signaling, which usually balance the brain activity. “If glutamate is the gas pedal of the brain, GABA is the brake pedal,” Strang says. Imagine your brain driving your body using the brake pedal, which might explain why some people never make it out of Bobb.

    As with any legendary substance, a few myths surround it. For instance, the ever-stylish “beer jacket” is second only to The North Face in popularity on campus. But alcohol actually causes a drop in your temperature, so don’t be too tempted to ditch your coat. Small blood vessels near your skin expand and more blood flows to the surface making you feel warmer but this process also takes blood and warmth away from your core where you actually need them.

    And, sorry ladies, but nature is not on your side. Women are more affected by alcohol than men. “Their physiology is different,” says Strang. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Women have more fat cells in their bodies, while men have more active enzymes in the liver. “[Men] can detoxify alcohol at a greater rate,” he says.

    It’s sometimes delicious, it’s usually dangerous, and it’s always a little unpredictable. So next time you toast, remember you’re holding a pharmacological hand-grenade.


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