biology zoology blog benno meyer alcohol

Booze and the Body

But not just that of a human

When I was 16 and spending part of my summer vacation with my aunt and uncle in Chislehurst (Kent), my Uncle Bill felt it might be interesting for me to visit a genuine English pub. And so he took me there. Once in the pub he felt it might be educational for me to experience a sip of genuine Scottish whisky, his favourite drink. And so he poured a glass for me. However, one sip and I had enough (for life!) To me it tasted like horrible medicine and to this day (and I’m over 70) I avoid that stuff. In fact, I only find various wines tasty, gin tonic enjoyable and Japanese sake drinkable. I must be one of the few who never drink beer. But many animals do (if they can get it) and like it (as well as other alcoholic drinks).

You may have read or heard of stark drunk and, as a consequence of that, very ‘rowdy’ elephants. These big animals love fermented baobab and marula fruits, but can’t handle the alcohol in them too well. When drunk they apparently become boisterous, playful, but also dangerous. Horses, too, have been reported to get drunk when eating too many fermented apples and I have made flies get drunk in the physiology lab to demonstrate to our students what happens when a fly or any other insect has ingested too much alcoholic sugar solution. Actually, it has problems taking off to fly, but when it does, it flies around erratically and may crash. Therefore, let us take note that it is possible to observe in all animals, including insects, signs of intoxication, in other words drunkenness. But is that really so? All animals? Well, birds too can get tipsy when picking up too many fermented berries. But what about fish? They, too, can get drunk (as has been demonstrated by some researchers when the fish were placed into a tank that contained alcohol in concentrations of 0.25, 0.5 and 1%). Zebrafish, a well known aquarium fish and laboratory species, swam faster when drunk and appeared to be more readily accepted as ‘leaders’, provided they weren’t too drunk, because then they’d become slow and dumb-witted, having difficulties to follow the sober fish. The effects of the alcohol, as with the elephants and horses mentioned above, wear off after a while and within a day the animals are usually back to normal.

What actually happens to the body when an individual gets drunk is this: ethanol (i.e. ‘alcohol’) is really a kind of poison that the body’s metabolism has to render non-toxic. The organ to deal with that is the liver (or the so-called ‘fat body’ in the insects) and its enzyme is the alcoholdehydrogenase (in some people the latter is absent or ineffective, and they can simply not handle any alcoholic drinks and get unwell after even a teaspoon of alcohol). Those that do have the enzyme can convert the alcohol into a substance known as acetaldehyde, which is then modified into acetic acid (vinegar) and ultimately carbon dioxide and water. The problem is that all these conversions take time and even if the liver works as hard and as quickly as it can to break down the poison if there is too much ethanol/alcohol in the blood, the individual gets drunk and all the symptoms of being drunk are observable.

Ethanol/alcohol if not removed from the blood and reaching the brain with its millions of synapses between nerve cells, can interfere with the normal transmission of messages. This can lead to slurry speech, to uncoordinated movements, to reduced inhibition, to greater risk-taking, but often also to a feeling of euphoria and (false) strength and invulnerability, because the alcohol liberates endorphins, i.e. the body’s own “happiness substance”. And now, looking at the clock, I suppose it’s time for “The happy hour” and a G&T.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2020.
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