Alcohol has a more profound and lasting effect on adolescents than it does on mature adults, who have completed their growth cycles. Abuse can disrupt the normal development of the body’s vital systems during adolescence, which can have lifelong effects.
Effects of Alcohol as a Depressant. Alcohol is a depressant which slows down the
central nervous system. The central nervous system is composed of the brain and the spinal cord, and controls everything that happens, consciously and unconsciously, in the body, including heart rate and breathing. In addition to the respiratory and circulatory systems, alcohol affects the digestive, endocrine, reproductive, muscular and skeletal systems. Alcohol disrupts the ability to react to stimuli in a timely manner. It numbs the brain by releasing chemicals that shut off pain and other discomfort centers and releases additional chemicals that enhance the pleasure centers of the brain.
Common depressants include opium, codeine, morphine, heroin and alcohol. Depressants are physically addicting and can irreparably damage vital organs if taken for long periods. Unlike heroin, alcohol causes damage to every vital organ in the body (although heroin is more addictive than alcohol).
Effect on the Teen Brain. Alcohol, like other substances of abuse, increases the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) that produces feelings of pleasure and excitement. Brains of repeat users are “rewired”, becoming
predisposed to cravings. For some teens, this happens more quickly and more profoundly. Long-term abuse of alcohol can rewire the pleasure/reward system of the brain so that normal pleasurable activities that once stimulated these pathways (enjoying a good movie or concert, getting straight A’s, etc.) are no longer sufficient. As a result, to increase dopamine levels and experiences resulting in pleasure, the addict needs to use drugs.
Poor School Performance. Damage to adolescent brains results in very specific areas related to academic function. Teen alcoholism and school failure are linked. A survey of 18 to 24 year olds who failed to complete high school showed that nearly 60% of them began drinking before age 16. Alcohol can negatively impact adolescent brain development. Heavy drinking by teens can have especially severe effects on memory, attention span and spatial skills. Alcohol-dependent kids fare worse on language and memory tests. Alcohol is a more potent blocker of learning in adolescents than in adults. The hippocampus, which is the brain region critical for forming new memories, is particularly affected by alcohol use during adolescence. Youth who drink show reduced brain response and score worse than non-drinkers on vocabulary, general information, memory and memory retrieval tests.
A recent study concluded that adolescents who abuse alcohol remember ten percent less of what they have learned in a given period of time than those who don’t drink. This occurs with occasional heavy drinking, also known as “party use”. As the UCSD researcher who conducted this study explains, “I like to think of it as the difference between an A and a B”.
Binge drinking. Binge drinking increases the risk for permanent alterations in brain functions. Studies show that the hippocampus is smaller in adults who drank heavily during their teenage years. The hippocampus is responsible for memory, emotions and motivation. Introducing large amounts of alcohol to the brain during those years disrupts brain development and can lead to permanently reduced brain function.
MRI images reveal that young binge drinkers show poorer white matter (called myelin) quality than non-drinkers. White matter accumulates around nerve cells. This process called myelination enables nerve cells to transmit information faster and allows for more complex brain function. During adolescence, myelination is occurring in the brain’s frontal lobe, which is the area responsible for a person’s ability to pay attention, plan, reason, make decisions and inhibit impulses more efficiently to demonstrate greater self-control. This is the brain region that is the last to develop. Studies from 2011 report that damage to the brains of binge drinking teens and young adults results in cortical thinning in the pre-frontal cortex. Damage to this section of the brain can also impair prospective memory, which is the ability to remember and carry out an activity at some future point, such as doing homework.
Girls are more vulnerable. One drink for a girl has about twice the effect of one drink for a boy. This is because female bodies process alcohol more slowly than males. Girls tend to weigh less than boys and a female’s body contains less water and more fatty tissue than a
male’s. Because fat retains alcohol while water dilutes it, alcohol remains at higher concentrations for longer periods of time in a female body, exposing a female brain and other organs to more alcohol. Additionally, females have lower levels of two enzymes that metabolize alcohol, and as a result females absorb more alcohol into their bloodstreams. Girls ages twelve to sixteen who drink alcohol are four more times likely to suffer from depression.
Finally, females have an accelerated course of alcohol dependence, meaning that they generally advance from their first drink to their first alcohol-related problem to the need for treatment more quickly than males.
Sexual Activity and Assault. Alcohol places teens in risky circumstances and relationships. It is frequently tied to cases of date rape, sexual assault, regretted sex, sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and unwanted pregnancies. Alcohol leads to loss of social inhibition and intoxication places a girl or boy at increased risk for sexual contact because of reduced judgment and self-control. Men who have been drinking alcohol commit approximately one-half of all sexual assaults. Women whose partners abuse alcohol are 3.6 times more likely to be assaulted by their partners.
Violence. Alcohol use is shown to promote assaults, quarrels and other violence, especially among boys. Teens who engaged in binge drinking were four times more likely to have been in a physical fight in the past year than teens that did not drink. Each year in the U.S., over
900,000 four-year college students are hit or assaulted by other students who have been drinking. Between 50-80% of violence on campus is alcohol related.
Effect on Males. Alcohol use lowers testosterone levels and other reproductive hormones in males. These hormones are important to normal body functions, including growth, development, metabolism and reproduction.
Alcohol can be lethal. A single instance of alcohol use can kill if enough is consumed at one time. Alcohol poisoning kills because alcohol shuts down parts of the brain controlling breathing and other “automatic” actions. When high levels of alcohol are consumed, the body may begin to rid itself of the “poison” through vomiting. However high concentrations of alcohol can cause inhalation of the vomited material into the lungs. This can cause infection and death.
Teens need to be aware that a person who is passed out from drinking can die. They should never leave the person alone or let them sleep, eat any food or take a cold shower. Vomiting should never be encouraged due to the risks of blocking the airway or causing the person to inhale the material that has been vomited.
It is particularly dangerous to mix alcohol with harder drugs and other medications. More than 150 medications, including antidepressant, cold and allergy medications, pose potential
dangers when mixed with alcohol. When alcohol and other drugs are mixed (called polysubstance abuse) they can potentially react with each other to create powerful and legal overdoses. Prescription pills such as Xanax or Adderall combined with alcohol are especially dangerous and have led to numerous deaths across the country.
Of the reported suicides by children ages nine to fifteen, 28% have been attributed to alcohol. One in four of children who take their lives does so under the influence of alcohol or because of alcohol related circumstances. Alcohol plays a role in over 300 teen suicides each year.
Alcohol appears to be less sedating in teens than adults. Teens who drink may be less likely than adults to feel sleepy and therefore more likely to drink more as well as believe they are able to drive. Crashes are more likely among teen drinkers than adult drinkers. Alcohol is the cause of 60% of all teen deaths in car accidents. Over 40% of all drunken driving fatalities
Genetics. Children of alcoholics have a 4-10 times greater risk of becoming an alcoholic. It is critical to explain to your
teen any history of alcohol or addiction in your family history, especially close family like aunts, uncles and grandparents.
Cancer. Heavy drinkers face much higher risks of liver cancer, mouth and throat cancer and cancer of the voice box, and to a lesser extent colon cancer. Recently, the American Society of Clinical Oncology called attention to evidence that even light drinking (of one drink a day for women) can raise a women's risk of breast cancer and esophageal cancer. The more you drink, the higher the risk. Click here to read more.
In sum, these are just a sampling of the risks and harmful effects of alcohol. Any other product with as many defects and potential harm as those of alcohol would be banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and immediately removed from store shelves. People would be suing manufacturers for damages. Yet there is a big exception for alcohol.
The bottom line? Responsible and moderate adult drinking, done mindfully when kids are around, is one matter; teen drinking, however, poses innumerable risks to their health, safety and well being.
For more information on alcohol, view our recent Blog on "Alcohol, Teens and Winter Break" with parenting tips for the holiday period.