Guinness beer
Paul Mcerlane  /  Reuters file
Don't count on the luck of the Irish to help you avoid the negative effects of too much booze.
By Jane Weaver Health editor
updated 3/16/2005 4:29:28 PM ET 2005-03-16T21:29:28

"Sláinte Mhath!" as the Irish would say. (It means "good health.")

On St. Patrick's Day, the green beer and Guinness will flow again. Drunken revelers will celebrate their Irishness for the day by pounding as many pints and shots in as short a time as possible in a ritual that's turned March 17 into one of the most alcohol-fueled days of the year.

It's fine to toast the Emerald Isle's patron saint — a little bit of alcohol can even be heart-healthy, research suggests. But before you get bleary-eyed, it's important to know how binge drinking may affect you.

Drunken bouts can harm the liver and the brain — the organs most vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol — and lead to alcohol poisoning. They also make you more susceptible to motor vehicle crashes, episodes of violence or sexual assault, and sexually transmitted diseases, experts on alcohol abuse say.

About 85,000 deaths a year are connected to alcohol abuse, with half of those related to binge drinking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

A binge occurs when an adult male consumes five or more drinks or a female consumes four or more drinks in a short period of time. Because women metabolize alcohol less efficiently than men and usually have less body mass, they become more intoxicated with a comparable number of drinks. (One drink is generally calculated as a 12-ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)

Alcohol toxicity varies depending on the individual and the circumstances, so it's difficult to determine a safe level, researchers say. That is, just because your buddy can down eight pints of green beer and still somehow make it home OK, you can't be sure you won't end up in the emergency room if you try to match him.

"Some [people] who are not abusive drinkers and party too much on just one occasion can get alcohol poisoning and die," says Dr. Peter M. Monti, director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

A growing problem year-round
St. Patrick's Day may be blamed for some of the booziest blow-outs, but binge drinking is a growing problem across the United States all through the year, especially among young people. It's linked to 1,400 college student deaths annually, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and the CDC.

Recent news reports have focused on the rising popularity of 'power hour' birthday bashes where 21-year-olds rapidly pound 21 shots of hard liquor. But it's not just the college kids who are slamming shots. About two-thirds of all binge drinking is done by people over the age of 25, according to a recent CDC study.

Statistics also show that the average American adult goes on a booze binge about 7.5 times a year. And about one in three people who drink alcohol report at least one episode of binge drinking in the prior month.

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"There’s a slight uptick in the percent of people who binge drink alcohol," says Dr. Tim Naimi, an epidemiologist on the CDC's alcohol research team. "And among those who binge drink, they're doing it more frequently."

Pity the poor liver
If you're planning to drink this St. Patrick's Day, take things slowly, experts advise. The liver, which processes about 95 percent of the alcohol that is consumed, can metabolize only about one drink per hour. Downing it any faster overloads the liver's capacity to process the alcohol and causes a person's blood alcohol content to rise rapidly.

"Our bodies have an amazing capacity to clean up our messes but when you dump in a big load of alcohol we quickly exceed the capacity of our enzymes and metabolic defenses against alcohol," says Naimi. "There are cognitive, neurological and gastro-intestinal effects from one really big drinking bout."

For young people, the damage can be substantial because the adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol. Young brains are still developing and abuse of alcohol can interfere with the development of areas that affect memory, explains Monti.

In studies on rats, researchers at the Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that getting plastered can affect verbal IQ and working memory in adolescent brains. "Large quantities of alcohol produce brain damage, especially repeated exposure, to the regions that are responsible for learning memory and mood," says Kim Nixon, a research associate at the center.

Although 21 years is the legal drinking age, many researchers say the brain continues to develop until one's mid-20s.

The good news is, most bingers aren't alcoholics and "for a lot of the people who get drunk on St. Patrick's Day, nothing bad will happen," says Naimi.

"But the bottom line is that over time binge drinking is dangerous, just like high blood pressure is dangerous, high cholesterol is dangerous."

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