Alcohol Basics

In our culture, alcohol is a commodity, one that is used freely in family gatherings, at meals and celebrations of all types. We see it in movies, on television and in the homes of nearly everyone we know. Yet, there are dangers and risks with alcohol that carry a heavy burden to our society. The overconsumption of alcohol has been a social nightmare since the beginning of its use. While many may partake with little or no ill effects, those who develop problems with alcohol abuse are many, the damage caused irreparable.

Alcohol is actually ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. Chemistry regards alcohol as an organic compound where the hydroxyl (-OH) is attached to a carbon atom. An acyclic alcohol, ethanol is the same alcohol that is present in alcoholic drinks. Fermented yeasts, sugars and starches produce alcohol.

History of Alcohol

An alchemist from Persia, al-Razi, is credited with the discovery of alcohol, in the form of ethyl alcohol in the tenth century.

The early beginnings were kohl a very fine powder that was used for antiseptic, eyeliner and cosmetic. (Think of the lines used by Cleopatra to frame her eyes.) The word first appeared in English in the 16th century, derived from the Arabic (al-kuhl), which translates roughly to “the kohl, a powder used as eyeliner”. The name became refined through the 16th and 17th centuries, as wines were called “spirits” and “wine spirits” became known as ethanol. This term became the common name of all alcoholic beverages, as well as the distinction between ethanol and other forms of alcohol that are not created for consumption.

Other Forms of Alcohol

While ethanol is the most commonly used form of alcohol, there are several other forms that are widely used for various purposes. Ethanol is clear and flammable, and has a boiling point of 78.4 degrees Centigrade. Because it can be used as a solvent, gasoline (fuel) for cars or trucks, and a raw commodity for use in chemical manufacturing; the United States has passed laws that mandate addition of additives that make it unpalatable or poisonous. A poisonous form is called methanol, or “surgical spirits.” Methanol is the simplest form of alcohol.

Other forms of alcohol used frequently are propanol and butanol. They, too, are created by using fermentation. This fermentation differs from that of the agent yeast as it is a bacterium, instead, and feeds off of cellulose, not sugars.

How Alcohol Works

A central nervous system depressant, alcohol is absorbed quickly into the blood stream directly from the stomach and small intestines. The faster the alcohol is absorbed, the more is in the bloodstream and the greater the effect on the person drinking. A person drinking on an empty stomach can be assured to experience nearly immediate absorption and faster intoxication. Little of the alcohol remains not absorbed into the bloodstream, no matter the content of the stomach of the drinker.

Because it acts directly on the nerve cell wall, measuring a person’s blood alcohol level, or BAC (for blood alcohol concentration), will determine, somewhat, the possible effects of intoxication. The higher their BAC, the more alcohol is in their system, and the subsequent measure will determine the effect of the alcohol in their brain and other body organs. This can be measured by taking blood, saliva, urine or breath samples


Alcohol has an impact on every organ in the human body. It slows and damages brain function, as well as having long-term effects on the liver, kidneys and heart. Also impacted with alcohol consumption is the pancreas, the immune system, and alcohol has been linked to the spread and increased risk for certain forms of cancer.

What Makes Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol directly affects the brain. While there is no recognized receptor in the brain that is impacted by alcohol, some of the benzodiazepine receptors will mediate its effects, and the activities of the neurotransmitters such as dopamine will also be affected. Alcohol is similar in action on the brain to sedative and depressant types of drugs, like heroin. Because it allows the drinker to be more relaxed socially, many will drink to calm social anxiety or stress. This could explain its popularity in settings where stress and tension may be a factor, but does not indicate addiction or tendency for alcohol dependence.

According to an article written in Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s 2006 publication, Visions, there are numerous explanations for the addiction to alcohol that has plagued man throughout history. One of them is the genetic predisposition that is believed to be a factor for those who are born with genetics built in to give them a tendency for possible alcohol addiction. This has been known for many years, although no strong science exists to explain which genetic markers are involved or how that manifests.

Another explanation is seen in the research reported by them whereby they have established a link between various serotonin markers were seen to be significant indicators in young monkeys, whose genetic makeup is the same as it is in young children. Therefore, the research is possible with monkeys, while not possible with human subjects. Stress in monkeys who were removed from their mothers at a young age was often a factor, as well as anxiety factors.

However, as stated by long time researcher Eric Schoch from Indiana University, “There are probably thousands of possible ways these neurons can be influenced by a drug like alcohol. That’s part of the puzzle; how do we figure that out?” Despite years of research, it is uncertain what the exact nature of alcohol addiction is created by. However, one thing is certain: There are persons who are going to become addicted to the pleasurable effects of alcohol. Who they are is anyone’s guess. How it happens for each individual is unknown at this time. The science gets closer and closer to determining what factors may make one person an alcoholic and another person a social drinker, but there are no definitive answers available today.

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