As we start getting into summer and the spirit of the festive season, many South Africans are looking forward to a well-deserved break, writes Rhys Evans, director of ALCO-Safe.
Even if they are not taking leave, they often enjoy consuming refreshing alcoholic beverages at home and at social occasions. Lunches, celebrations and the good old traditional braai are part and parcel of the country’s summer and festive season culture, and a drink or two (or more) often accompany such events.
This period sees a spike in alcohol consumption, and correspondingly a spike in alcohol-related accidents, injuries and even fatalities. While drinking is one of the ways many people relax and unwind, staying safe and seeing in the New Year without incident should be everyone’s number one priority.
The consequences of excessive alcohol consumption
Drinking and driving is obviously a significant issue at any time of the year, but even more so over the December period. Year-end lunches and evening functions often end with many people over-indulging, and driving while over the legal limit could not only get you arrested, it could lead to an accident in which you could injure or kill yourself or others. Being involved in a drink driving incident means a criminal record for life, and if someone else dies, the charge of culpable homicide will be laid against the drunk driver.
While driving, alcohol consumption results in reduced ability to judge speed and distance, required braking distance as well as the width of gaps. It also leads to drowsiness and loss of concentration, which can easily end in an accident where one or more people is injured or even killed.
However, drink driving is not the only concern with excessive drinking. Alcohol consumption has a number of effects on the body, all of which can lead people into risky situations. The most well known negative effects of alcohol consumption are impaired judgment, impaired co-ordination, and drowsiness. Alcohol also increases feelings of wellbeing, lowers inhibitions and results in a lack of awareness of one’s surroundings.
These are all dangerous effects not only while driving, but also walking or even just being in an unfamiliar location. Drunk people are easy targets for opportunistic criminals.
Alcohol consumption also leads to dehydration, which causes the dreaded morning after hangover, and long-term over indulgence can lead to issues such as liver damage and other health problems.
Understanding alcohol in the body
The best way to stay safe is to drink responsibly, and the best way to do that is to understand exactly how alcohol is metabolised and the factors affecting blood alcohol concentration so that you can stay below the legal limit.
Alcohol is absorbed by the blood, which flows throughout the body. Circulating blood carries alcohol to the brain, resulting in the characteristic symptoms of alcohol consumption. The blood is also carried to the liver, which works to metabolize alcohol from out of the blood. The human liver can only filter out a certain amount of toxins such as alcohol in any given space of time, and when a person drinks faster than the alcohol can be metabolised, they will show signs and symptoms of being drunk.
Alcohol is metabolised at approximately one unit per hour. A unit is one 340ml beer with 5% alcohol by volume (ABV) or one and a half tots of spirits (37ml) with 43% ABV, or a 135ml glass of wine with 12% ABV.
However, the actual level of alcohol in the blood depends on many different factors, including the alcohol percentage of the beverage, the length of time spent drinking, the contents of the drinker’s stomach, and their body weight and body composition.
So, for example, a person who sips a beer with 4,5% ABV over a period of an hour will have a far lower blood alcohol concentration than if he or she had consumed a shot of tequila with 40% ABV.
The presence of food in the stomach, especially fatty substances, will slow down the absorption of alcohol into the blood, so a person drinking on an empty stomach will exhibit signs of drunkenness faster than someone who has eaten a full meal.
In addition, the bigger a person is, the slower alcohol will be absorbed into the blood. This is because the larger the body, the more water it contains. This means that after drinking a certain quantity of alcohol, say one beer, they will have a lower total alcohol concentration than a smaller person drinking the same amount of alcohol.
Furthermore, body fat percentage also has an effect, as a person with more body fat contain less water than muscular individuals of the same body weight. Alcohol is less soluble in fat than in water, so a person with higher body fat will have higher concentrations of alcohol compared to a muscular person of the same weight.
Top tips for responsible drinking
With an understanding of how alcohol is absorbed by the body and the effects it can have, people are armed with the knowledge they need to stay safe by drinking responsibly.
Our top tips for responsible drinking are as follows:
* Drink no more than one unit of alcohol per hour to ensure the alcohol can be metabolised before you become intoxicated.
* Alternate alcoholic beverages with none-alcoholic drinks, particularly water as this will combat dehydration and prevent hangovers.
* Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Numerous studies on the effects of food on alcohol absorption have found that eating food before drinking not only slows the rate of alcohol absorption into the bloodstream, but also reduces its peak concentration.
* Finally, if you do overindulge, don’t drive. There are many different options, including nominating a designated driver or making use of a taxi or lifting service. There simply is no excuse for drunk driving. Apart from a criminal record, if you kill or injure someone in an accident you will be taking the life of someone’s mother, father, son, daughter or loved one. You will have to live with the guilt for the rest of your life.
Stay safe and have a happy holiday and festive season
The end of the year is approaching, and with it come the parties, the festivities and the fun of the summer holidays. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a drink or two as part of the festive season, but when it comes to overindulging, knowing the facts is key to staying healthy and safe. Excessive alcohol consumption is a personal choice that can have health consequences, but should you choose to overindulge, drinking and driving is inexcusable.
Stay sober, have a friend drive you home, stay the night or catch a cab, and see in 2017 in good health and good cheer.