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Alcohol: a story from daily consumption to ban attempts

Scientific view on the relationship of society with ethanol, the details of its influence on the mind and the details of the regulation of the authorities.

“Inner struggle.” Picture of Adam Lupton

Humanity has been familiar with alcohol for many centuries, but research related to ethanol damage to the body is not more than 100 years old. At one time, beer was considered to be the usual nutritional drink for peasants, and gin in large quantities seized London. Now, society is increasingly thinking about how even small doses of alcohol affect the body, mind and behavior of a person, and why ethanol has managed to avoid the fate of drugs.

From the gin epidemic to understanding addiction

The first acquaintance with the stupefying properties of ethanol happened when the fermented juice of fruits and vegetables got into the usual human diet by chance or intentionally (hard to say for sure). Under the influence of fungal cultures, the sugar contained in them accumulates ethanol, which leads to changes in the human body and mind.

Archaeological expeditions often stumble upon traces of drinking in everyday life. At the end of September 2018, a group of researchers from Stanford University found traces of brewing in Israeli caves. Examination of the samples showed that the particles of the hop drink about 13 thousand years. The researchers concluded that the beer drink served as part of the funeral ritual ceremony.

Before this discovery, the territory of China was considered the earliest sign of beer consumption , and the very first wines belong to Georgia. Daily consumption of low alcohol beverages was considered the norm for medieval Europe. The working class used high-calorie beer as a nutritional alternative to water, and more prosperous people allowed themselves wine.

A group of archaeologists in a cave in Israel, where they discovered the most ancient traces of brewing in history, September 2018. Photos of researcher Liu Liu

Alcohol was used for medical purposes, as evidenced by various Sumerian and Egyptian texts. According to the book of the parable of Solomon, “a person who is upset by the soul must be given guilt so that he would forget his poverty and not recall suffering.”

Attitudes toward alcohol changed after the popularization of the distillation cube. Thanks to distillation, such drinks as whiskey, brandy and moonshine got into the broad masses. Alcohol became more toxic and had a more pronounced intoxication, due to which it gained popularity in society.

In the 18th century, gin from surplus grain was actively produced in London, so many drank it in large quantities. In this regard, there is a need to approve regulatory laws relating to the production and sale of alcohol. This period is called the “gin epidemic”.

Epidemic gin. Engraving by Hogarth William
Epidemic gin. Engraving by Hogarth William

In 1849, Swedish physician Magnus Huss first used the term “alcoholism” and described the side effects and changes in the body with prolonged alcohol intake. Before that, drunkenness was not considered a disease – only a bad habit and a sign of bad taste. With the boom of industrialization at the beginning of the 20th century, the opinion about alcohol began to change everywhere: drunkenness in the workplace was condemned because it led to production errors and reduced efficiency.

Doctors are not left aside – they have more and more time devoted to the study of alcohol dependence and its harmful effects on the body. By 1952, the severity of scientific papers on this topic led to the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) fixed the term “alcoholism” and designated it as a disease.

The effect of alcohol on the human body

The active substance of alcohol is ethyl alcohol, more simply – ethanol. In addition to entering the body through alcohol, it is also produced naturally. For example, the metabolism of glucose leads to the appearance of a small amount of ethanol in the blood. This is called endogenous ethanol. Scientists are trying to prove the synthesis of endogenous ethanol through the gastrointestinal tract as a result of carbohydrate metabolism, but so far unsuccessfully.

Drinking alcohol in any quantity affects many processes inside the body.


Alcohol is a high-calorie product, but often people who regularly use alcohol do not suffer from overweight problems. Most of the problems with it are those who drink at the holiday table and with abundant snacks.

Studies have shown that the calories derived from alcohol are not used effectively, but increase the level of metabolism. That is, hunger is growing at the expense of these empty calories. This leads to the fact that the burning process increases and the calories do not turn into fat, but the appetite grows, causing cravings for overeating. There is also a connection between the love of sugar and alcohol: people who often drink are more indifferent to sweet foods.


Ethyl alcohol consists of two carbon atoms (C), several hydrogen atoms (H) and hydroxyl (OH). Penetrating into the body, these substances change the connections in the brain and affect neurotransmitters. These are biologically active substances involved in the transmission of information and signals between neurons and other cells.

Ethanol formula

A prolonged concentration of alcohol in the brain destroys connections between neurons, which can lead to dementia. Reaching the brain, alcohol interferes with the normal operation of glutamate (plays an important role in the body, as it is 25% of all amino acids).

Glutamate is responsible for signaling between other receptors. A low level of glutamate leads to apathy, and a high one to overstrain and headache.

With prolonged alcohol intake, ethanol tolerance and glutamate sensitivity are formed in the brain. This is the withdrawal syndrome known as withdrawal syndrome.

If a person consumes alcohol for a long time or has an alcohol addiction, then with a sharp cessation of ethanol intake, a large amount of glutamate is released in the body. The condition of the body is accompanied by cramps, fever, anxiety, psychosis, insomnia or delirium tremens. The withdrawal syndrome lasts from three to seven days, after which the body returns to normal.


Due to the inhibition of neurotransmitters GABA and the obstacle to the work of glutamate, all information in the mind begins to flow slowly. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a group of inhibitory neurons and the direct opposite of glutamate. A high level of GABA ensures calm and concentration, and a critically low level leads to attention deficit disorder.

When alcohol is consumed, memory weakens, the speed of the thinking process decreases, and perception is dulled. The brain concentrates on a small amount of ideas, while spending a lot of energy on it. It is organized as follows. Often, people perform a certain order of actions with moderate and severe intoxication – for example, they constantly repeat a phrase or discuss one topic without end. This is the very effect – a person is concentrated on one thought, but it has no semantic value.

Do you respect me? Tell me, do you respect me? No, well, answer me, do you respect me?


Studies show a strong link between alcohol and memory impairment. With long-term use of ethanol, memory functions begin to fail in small tasks. There is an opinion that alcohol is associated with cognitive abilities to learning and affects the development of dementia.

Since alcohol interferes with the normal process of assimilation of thiamine, this can gradually lead to the development of Gaia-Wernicke syndrome (brain damage). Thiamine belongs to the B1 group of vitamins and enters the body with different foods, but if you consume alcohol and do not follow the normal diet, it will lead to its deficiency and impaired memory, confusion of thoughts and sleep problems. It is treated with the introduction of vitamin B1, but if you ignore, the syndrome can provoke coma.

Alcohol may also have a positive effect on memory. Scientists from the University of Exeter conducted a small study with the participation of 88 people who periodically consume alcohol in the company. To create a more comfortable environment, subjects were tested at home.

In the first task, it was necessary to memorize words to which an extra letter was added. For example – literally. After that, half of the subjects were required to drink as much alcohol as they deemed necessary within two hours. Then followed a new stage of tasks with memorization of pictures, after which the subjects continued to drink.

The next day it turned out that, on average, everyone drank about 83 grams of alcohol. On repeated tests, subjects who consumed non-alcoholic beverages showed the same results, and people who consumed alcohol coped better with the task. Those who drank more alcohol had a better result.


Alcohol and depression are related to each other. It is still not entirely clear whether alcohol use leads to depression, or whether a person with depression is prone to drinking alcohol. Often people mistakenly believe that alcohol contributes to good mood and fun, but this is not entirely true.

One-time activities with alcohol can turn a party into something fun, but alcohol is a depressant. Since it enhances the work of GABA neurotransmitters, this is reflected in the behavior and leads to inhibition of thought processes. And constant dopamine emissions cause imbalances and disrupt the reward system in the brain.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for a person’s psychological state, motivation, and desire for learning. One of the participants in the brain reward program. With positive emotions or learning, he encourages his master with a sense of satisfaction. Lack of dopamine leads to depression, lack of motivation and cognitive impairment. Elevated dopamine levels lead to mental disorders and addiction in the form of addiction, gambling and increased interest in gambling.

Researchers at Wake Forest University believe that the rare use of alcohol can work on the principle of a fast-acting anti-depressant, like ketamine. Tests on mice showed that a large single dose of alcohol changed the general condition of the subjects for the better for at least a week. But difficulties arise: since a one-off drinking of alcohol relieves the symptoms of depression, a person begins to use it more often, which leads to a more destructive state and an endless cycle of alcohol dependence.


The scientific name of “White Hot” – delirium tremens. It is a mental disorder of consciousness with symptoms such as auditory and visual hallucinations, fever, delirium and nightmares. It is believed that delirium tremens are susceptible to people intoxicated, but this is not so. Three categories of people are subject to this condition.

  • People who systematically drink alcohol for several years, and abruptly abandon it. They have withdrawal syndrome, which in a few days can provoke delirium tremens;
  • In rare cases, people who use surrogate drinks or alcohol in large quantities;
  • People who have suffered diseases of the central nervous system or having head injuries.

Drinking alcohol disrupts sleep: the number of fast phases of sleep decreases, a person sees less dreams, and they accumulate in the subconscious. Since the refusal of alcohol sometimes leads to insomnia, the shortage of fast phases reaches its climax, and the remaining dreams break out into reality. A person begins to see dreams during wakefulness – this is hallucinations and impaired perception during delirium tremens.

Balmer Peak

The appearance of this term is attributed to Steve Ballmer, who, while working as an ordinary employee at Microsoft in the 1980s, noticed that a certain amount of alcohol concentration in the body increases productivity. In his case, it is programming. Despite the fact that the statement is comic, there is some truth in it. Balmer Peak is supposedly an individual body setting and the required amount of alcohol in the blood is determined experimentally.

Comic based on the Ballmer method

A study by the University of Illinois showed that small doses of alcohol increase the concentration and performance of a person. 40 people took part in the test: during the screening of the cartoon, half of the subjects consumed alcohol, and the other part did not. After that they had to solve 15 simple tasks.

The people who used the cocktails coped with the task better than those who did not drink alcohol. Most likely, this is due to the neurotransmitters of GABA, which, under the influence of alcohol, inhibit processes and increase the concentration of a person on a single task or thought.

Influence of genetics and society

It is believed that 40-50% of the risk of alcoholism lies on genetic heredity, and the remaining 40-50% on the social environment. People with hostile insensitivity to alcohol are subject to the development of alcohol dependence. Their bodies are designed in such a way that they do not feel the side effects, but experience only positive sensations.

In this case, NMDA-glutamate receptor processes are restarted. Someone may experience a sharp deterioration in memory, disruption of the vestibular apparatus (dizziness), severe intoxication (hangover), and someone suffers much better and is immune to side effects.

The nature of the person and the system of rewards and punishments affect theattitude towards alcohol . If a person thinks on the basis of short-term gain, then the propensity to drink alcohol is higher than that of people who think in the paradigm of long-term gain. The first choose instant rewards here and now, not paying attention to possible problems with alcohol in the future. The latter prefer to stop and assess potential risks.

The social factor also plays a significant role in the process of alcohol consumption. For example, being at a party, a person may be tempted and start drinking with everyone, so as not to drop out of a social group. If a person experiences stress while alone, it also awakens the desire to drink. Such processes are associated with the fact that in moments of stress and stress behavioral reactions work differently. The ability to refuse things, whether it is alcohol or junk food, is waning. A person commits acts which, without stress, could fight back.

Even in small amounts, systematic drinking can form a habit. Studies show that determining the exact time for habit formation is difficult, since various factors influence the fixation of a model, and the creation of automatism in actions can take from 15 to 250 days.

Why alcohol is not prohibited

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a drug as a chemical agent that causes stupor, coma or insensitivity to pain. The term refers to opiates or opioids, they are also called narcotic analgesics.

Depending on the individual characteristics of the person, the dose and concentration, ethanol has narcotic and toxic effects. It can lead to stupor, coma, dulling of the feeling of pain and depression of the central nervous system. The systematic use of ethanol is addictive. However, these signs are not enough to attribute ethanol to the drug. Its toxicity is also not large enough to be considered an official poison. WHO attributes ethanol to psychoactive substances.

The UN has its own definition of a drug and psychoactive substance.

  • A narcotic drug is any of the substances included in lists I and II – natural and synthetic;
  • A psychotropic substance is any substance, natural or synthetic, or any natural material included in Schedule I, II, III or IV.

In order for a substance to fall on the list and be regulated at the international level, three criteria must be met.

  • Medical – a substance must have an influence on the central nervous system, provoke systematic non-medical consumption and develop various kinds of addiction. Provide a stimulating or depressive effect, cause hallucinations and disrupt motility, behavior and perception;
  • Social – large-scale use of the substance in the masses entails harm to society;
  • Legal – the substance must be registered in the official register of narcotic drugs at the legislative level. The paradox is that the formation of the third criterion is completely based on the presence of the first two. Banning at the level of the law is a long-term process and can create financial and organizational difficulties for the state.

Ethyl alcohol is used in food products, medicine, industry and perfumery. Putting him on the list of narcotic drugs will lead to tight state control, which may entail negative consequences for entire industries. That is what happened with technical hemp during the periods of banning marijuana.

Attempts to restrict alcohol

In the 1860s, Sweden developed one of the very first anti-alcohol systems, it was named after the city of Gothenburg. Due to the wide distribution of alcoholic beverages in the country, a law was passed prohibiting the manufacture of alcohol at home, as well as restricting the sale of alcohol. After that, the Gothenburg Joint Stock Company was organized.

This institution monopolized the right to trade in alcohol: alcohol was served only with snacks and food, and in limited quantities for one person and with a total ban on the sale of debt. The release of alcohol was made only in snack bars and tea shops. The joint-stock drinking society received the full income from the sale of food and 5% of the income from the sale of alcoholic beverages. The rest of the income came to the city treasury and went to the improvement of the city. Creating libraries, museums, landscaping parks, supporting ambulance services and so on.

The Gothenburg system contributed to the cultivation of a culture of consumption of alcoholic beverages and reduced severe forms of alcoholic intoxication. However, there was a risk in the interest of the state in obtaining greater profits through the sale of alcohol. In addition, there were difficulties with controlling the sale of alcohol to go and the transfer of a person from one establishment to another.

The Swedish system has also spread in Scotland, Norway and Finland. Later, in 1917, the Swedish doctor and entrepreneur Ivan Bratt tried to improve it, but in 1922 a referendum on the ban on alcohol began in the country. During it, 51% of the population voted against the initiative, so the improved Bratt system was fixed and existed until 1955.

The Bratt system worked as follows. A citizen over the age of 21 was issued a special “Motbook” voucher. She allowed to purchase a certain amount of vodka per month. During holidays, for example, at a wedding or anniversary, the amount of permissible alcohol increased. One family was given one book, and it was punished for transferring it to third parties.

Thanks to the Bratt system, vodka consumption was halved, but by 1960 it had risen again. At present, take-away alcohol is monopolized in Sweden and alcoholic beverages can only be purchased at specialized state stores Systembolage.

Coupon book "Motbook". Photo of Freeman Norwegian Surveyor
Coupon book “Motbook”. Photo of Freeman Norwegian Surveyor

The practice of limiting alcohol was undertaken not only in Sweden. At the beginning of the 20th century, many countries, including Canada, Russia, Hungary, Finland and Norway fought drunkenness. In the United States operated a dry law from 1920 to 1933 and spawned a whole branch of the illegal production of alcohol, which controlled the mafia.

From 1894 to 1913, there was a wine monopoly in Russia , incomes from the production and sale of alcohol reached up to 26% of the budget. Despite the significant role of alcohol for the budget, in 1913 the emperor imposed a ban on alcohol, which lasted even after the revolution until 1925. Alcohol consumption has decreased tenfold, the number of mental illnesses has decreased, and the birth rate has increased.

By 1960, statistics became equal to the figures for 1913. The anti-alcohol campaign operated after the ban was lifted, but only within the framework of propaganda and agitation for a healthy lifestyle, as well as with regard to some other restrictions. By the 1960s, many Western countries abandoned the idea of ​​Prohibition and lifted almost all bans on production and sale. Only in Iceland, the dry law operated until 1989, although it applied only to strong beer.

Agitational poster of the USSR, 1929

Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya and several other countries still adhere to the practice of Prohibition and the restriction of alcohol. However, the authorities of these states are driven not only by maintaining the health of the population, but also by observing religious traditions.

At the same time, Western countries focused not on banning alcohol, but on preventing and reducing the harm it does to society. Advertising of alcoholic beverages is limited, retail sales are regulated, and in many countries non-profit organizations work for the rehabilitation of addicts. In addition, every few years, WHO publishes the “European Action Plan to Combat Alcohol Consumption” – it is he who, experts believe, determines the further development in the field of protecting the population from the harmful properties of alcohol.

There is a lot of controversy about the success or failure of prohibition law and there is no consensus. This is due to the fact that in addition to positive results, such as reducing crime and increasing life expectancy, there are also negative consequences: surrogate poisoning, moonshine making and the closure of manufacturing enterprises. And, as time has shown, there is still no ideal practice regarding alcohol that would satisfy everyone.

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