Part of the festive spirit of Christmas and the New Year is the consumption of alcohol. It helps us welcome the New Year and makes us more relaxed. But it is a drug nonetheless and mixing it with other drugs, like common medications, can have unpleasant consequences.
What is Alcohol?
It is one of the oldest and more commonly used drugs in the world, recognised for centuries as a source of pleasure and relaxation. It is classified as a depressant because it acts to decrease or slow down the activity of brain centres, which results in decreasing of social inhibition for example. The more alcohol consumed, the more brain centres are affected, leading to less pleasant effect like slurred speech and loss of coordination.
Ethanol the main active ingredient in alcohol is absorbed in the stomach and intestines and is delivered to our liver, where it is broken down into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde. In small quantities, the liver can break down acetaldehyde very efficiently and prevent symptoms, like flushing or nausea. But after a night of heavy drinking, the liver cannot keep up and acetaldehyde and ethanol build up. Then the effects of a wild night hit us with a hangover.
How do Alcohol and Medications interact?
The liver is the main place where many foreign materials and toxins are broken down. Despite being a very strong, large and efficient organ, when placed under stress, our liver, too, can be overwhelmed. Since the same process is used to detoxify many different compounds, it is possible that two or more substances will cause an overload on the liver and a toxic reaction in it. This is where most Alcohol-drug interactions occur. Paracetamol, a common painkiller, is broken down by the liver in the same area and by very similar mechanism as alcohol. So when taken together, alcohol and paracetamol overwhelm the liver leading to an early onset of drunkness and it will last for longer. The toxic intermediates of paracetamol and alcohol can then accumulate in the liver and can cause serious damage.
So, what next?
Alcohol is an enjoyable part of the holiday season, and is relatively harmless in moderation. But when we need to have other drugs it is important to consult your doctor or dentist regarding any possible interaction between alcohol and the medications you are taking. If you get the drugs from your chemist without a prescription ask the chemist if it safe for you to drink alcohol. Let our liver enjoy this holiday season and many more to come!