By Christian Eedes, 2 August 2011
As featured in the last issue of Longevity: It is easy to obsess about wine as an art form, an unconventional art form in that it has to be consumed in order to be appreciated, but an art form even so. Thus, us wine lovers will ponder the impact of factors such as climate, and soil on taste and quality; we will try to discern the winemaker’s original intention and muse over how successfully it was realised; and we will debate long and hard a particular wine’s concentration of flavour, complexity, balance and length. What very rarely gets discussed is wine’s mood-altering capability virtue of being an alcoholic beverage.
When you understand precisely alcohol’s effect on the brain, it quickly becomes clear why more moderate drinking is advisable. Essentially alcohol is a depressant that reduces brain activity. Its first effect as it reaches the cerebral cortex (outer layer of the brain) is to slow your thought processes making you feel more relaxed and lower you inhibitions leading you to become more talkative and confident. A feeling of euphoria soon follows.
All good, so far. Alcohol is however also starting to blunt your senses, increasing your threshold for pain. Depending on how rowdy the party, you could potentially do yourself an injury and not be aware it has occurred!
Alcohol will also begin to impact on the limbic system, that part of the brain which controls the basic emotions and hence why heavy drinking can lead to exaggerated states of emotion like anger or sadness. This explains the weepy girl at the party who has issues with her ex-boyfriend …
As you consume more alcohol, and it reaches the cerebellum at the back of the skull which directs muscular activity, your coordination and perception are affected. Reflexes diminish, movements become uncoordinated and balance is impaired. Drinking and driving is obviously not a good idea at this point.
Alcohol also depresses nerve centres in the hypothalamus which controls many automatic functions of the brain. In particular, you’ll find alcohol consumption leads to increased sexual desire but declining sexual performance declines. Bummer.
By inhibiting the secretion of anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) via the pituitary gland, alcohol also affects urine excretion. ADH acts on the kidney to reabsorb water, so when ADH levels drop, the kidneys don’t reabsorb as much water and hence produce more urine. Hence the long queues to use the loo at bars and nightclubs.
Once the alcohol finally reaches the inner core of the brain called the medula, breathing slows and your heart rate drops, and you start to feel sleepy (extreme consumption can lead to unconsciousness and even death).
For those of us who enjoy a glass or three, the above may appear a bit bleak. But I believe wine consumed responsibly only adds to a life well lived. “In the good times, wine is a cultured pleasure, an intimate exploration of nature’s diversity through the prism of agricultural skills. In times of crisis, by contrast, it’s a salve: the glass that cheers and brings perspective, scattering the shadows for an hour or two,” wrote leading UK wine columnist Andrew Jefford recently, and I could not but admire him for his honesty.