Health – in and after college – is a multifaceted affair. Getting the right portions of the right foods is a feat of nutritional discipline, one that even the most health-minded individuals struggle with when Insomnia Cookies is just a phone call away. Hitting the gym can also be difficult, especially when the weather is leaving icicles on your car's tailpipe.
However, one of the most misunderstood parts of most young peoples' lives is also one of the most common – the mystical elixir known as ethanol.
Ethyl alcohol (read: booze) is ubiquitous in the college student's life, especially when you live in the land of the SEC. Every night of the week, some bar will have a drinking special, one that is often very, very convincing. Whether it's trivia night, wine night, pitcher night or pint night, there's alcohol, and it's cheap. So, besides making you the best dancer on the dance floor, how exactly does alcohol affect your body?
(Disclaimer: this is not an anti-drinking ad. Everything in moderation, including moderation. However, there are some surprising physiological effects that you may not be aware of. This column is merely exploring them.)
First of all, Ethanol acts a glutamate antagonist. Glutamate is an important neurotransmitter in your brain; an antagonist essentially down-regulates the activity of a neurotransmitter. All of that is to say, alcohol makes your brain less stimulated (not permanently, obviously).
You know the nights that you drink a few and immediately pass out? Not enough glutamate is binding to the correct receptors. The alcohol has down-regulated part of your brain. The most interesting part of this is the opposite end. After a night of heavy binge drinking, you've really trashed a huge amount of your glutamate receptors. Your brain responds in a panic: "There's not enough glutamate! We're getting really sleepy! Wait! I know what could fix this: more glutamate!"
Boom – your brain cranks out glutamate, and around 7 or 8 a.m., you wake up. You're exhausted, you're still drunk, and you can't fall back asleep. Instead, you do the sleepy shuffle to the fridge and grab whatever leftovers are left over and sit on the couch and feel really awkward because everyone else in the house is so thoroughly passed out. All that glutamate stimulates you out of your fatigued stupor and leaves you that way for the duration of the morning. It's called a hangover.
Another thing ethyl alcohol can do is really mess with your long-term memory, for a very long time. In fact, ethanol can affect what's known as long-term potentiation, a process that occurs when you make the same connections in your brain over and over. Basically, your circuits rearrange to enable ease of connection the next go around. This process is accomplished by what's known as "mushrooming" of the receptive side (when a receiving neuron gets larger), as well as the movement of more receptors into the vicinity. It's like the cell does everything it can to ensure that the signal is easily repeatable.
A single binge-drinking episode can partially inhibit the long-term potentiation process for up to a month, which is an absurdly long amount of time. It's easy to think that drinking heavily a couple weeks before an exam wouldn't really be an issue, but it turns out it is.
So what's the solution? It's more of finding a balance. Again, everything in moderation, but it's important to be aware of what you're doing when you do it.
Andrew Fleming is a junior in neuroscience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.