The Halloween Blackout

Christos Liardakis

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Halloween is the perfect holiday for overindulgence with treats of many kinds being freely distributed. While children are going door to door to ask for candy this Halloween, adults and college students will be “Trick or Drinking” and getting drunk. Donning a costume protects the wearer’s identity and the added anonymity helps lower inhibitions against overindulgence in a social psychology mechanism known as “deindividuation,” according to National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

The advice given by experts such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) takes into account the expectation of alcohol abstinence as unrealistic among young adults. The CDC recommends all people drink in moderation, with the definition of moderate drinking being 1 drink a day or less for women and 2 drinks a day or less for men. More than those amounts is considered heavy drinking by the CDC and can significantly increase the risk of cancer, stroke and liver disease. Consumption of more than 4 or 5 drinks during a period of two hours is considered binge drinking and can cause serious health and social problems. The CDC stresses that all forms, and strengths, of alcohol must be considered a drug; as it is a central nervous system depressant.

Dr. Terrence Puryear of  the Biology Department at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU)  described alcohol acting much as a cleaning detergent does, removing stains by dissolving proteins and lipids. A lipid is the scientific way of describing fats such as the membrane around our cells. The myelin sheaths that protect vital parts of our brain cells or neurons are also made of lipids. When a person drinks, the alcohol inside of their body slowly eats away at this sheath, allowing the ions responsible for transferring messages via electrical charge to and from our neurons to move erratically. Puryear described the affect of alcohol akin to damaging the cord to an electrical appliance. The appliance is made vulnerable to surges and malfunctions.

These malfunctions due to myelin sheath damage lead to impairment in a person’s cognitive process, and then to disruptions in motor skills, such as difficulty in walking or talking. Continued or binge drinking results in greater impairment, causing losses in memory and blackouts. Excessive amounts of alcohol can even cause a complete breakdown in the signal relay between the brain and vital organs such as the heart and lungs, potentially causing cardiac arrest and respiratory failure because the brain can no longer tell the heart and lungs to keep a person alive.

Studies from NCBI also show that chronic alcohol ingestion and acute alcoholic ingestion (drinking alcohol on a regular basis, as well as over consumption of alcohol at any given time) can lead to liver damage, cancer, and muscle deterioration due to the alcohol denaturing the proteins in muscle cells and leading to premature apoptosis. Apoptosis is the body’s natural mechanism of cell death when cells get too old and are simply not efficient or functional anymore.

The good news is that the myelin sheath does slowly regenerate, so no one should become a vegetable after a few years of responsible drinking. But the effects should be taken seriously, and can be viewed first-hand by performing a very simple experiment at home. Break an egg (and toss in bacon if you are feeling hungry) into a cup of vodka. The alcohol will cook the proteins in both the egg and bacon to the point of edibility. Just imagine that happening to your neurons and liver, and you should have no problem being responsible with your drinking.