Can university students afford to lose valuable brain cells?

Binge drinking. Sound like something only alcoholics do? That’s what I thought, until I read the Canadian Medical Association’s definition for the term. They characterize binge drinking as consuming five (four for women) or more standard drinks in a single occasion. Therefore, binge drinking is a lot easier to accomplish than I initially thought. Perhaps that is why it is considered a greater public health problem than alcoholism, due to the fact that it affects a higher percentage of drinkers.

A study conducted in 2000 showed that the highest prevalence of binge drinking occurred with young adults, ages 18-25. Hmmm . . . that’s the age of most university students. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, our own campus provides beer gardens on the first day of the academic school year. I have nothing against the beer gardens, but it provides a good example of opportunities to binge drink.

Some people binge very rarely, while, to others, binge drinking almost becomes a class slot on their timetable. Those who only binge drink once in a while will most likely experience immediate short-term consequences but no long-term effects. However, these short-term consequences may quickly turn from desirable to not so desirable. As the night (and drinks) continue, you may have wished you put down that last pina colada!

A binge-drinking episode may begin with feelings of relaxation and sociability, often causing participants to do things they normally wouldn’t do. Additionally, feelings of drowsiness, dizziness and flushing may occur. These minor effects may seem harmless enough, but if drinking continues, the consequences become progressively more serious. Examples include difficulty walking, talking or seeing. Although the lack of body coordination is amusing, the lowering of breathing, pulse rates and blood pressure is not so humorous. Furthermore, aggressive and violent behaviour may be demonstrated as a short-term effect of binge drinking. All of these immediate consequences of binging can cause risky behaviour, such as engaging in unprotected sex and impaired driving.

Occasional binging, if taken to an extreme, can still lead to alcohol poisoning. Blacking out (not remembering what you do or say) and passing out (becoming unconscious) are common occurrences when alcohol is taken to this extreme. One of the major fears for binge drinkers is that they will pass out on their backs, throw up and then choke on their own vomit and die. Even if these two events do not occur simultaneously, passing out and vomiting are dangerous actions when caused by alcohol. A passed out person’s blood alcohol concentration may continue to rise, especially if the person drank quickly. Consequently, alcohol poisoning and death can occur even if the person appears to be fine (i.e. breathing normally) when they first pass out. Drunken vomiting is also dangerous by itself because it can cause severe dehydration.

As mentioned before, those who just binge drink occasionally will most likely experience the previously mentioned short-term effects. However, it is possible for a person to experience long-term consequences after just one binging episode. So, a warning to all you drinking enthusiasts, the following effects are long-term and may not go away as quickly as your usual hangover. Permanent brain and liver damage, skin, heart and circulatory problems, many types of cancer, stomach ulcers, vitamin deficiencies and sexual problems — decreased sperm production, impotency and infertility — are all consequences associated with frequent binge drinking. Furthermore, emotional changes and memory loss are also common long-term effects of binging.

The human body not only becomes physically dependent on alcohol, but psychologically dependent as well. As a result of this physical and mental craving for alcohol, binge drinking can lead to problems in almost every part of a person’s life. Legal, work, school and relationship related issues can all result from continual binging episodes. These problems only worsen because binge drinking will eventually increase the alcohol tolerance of a person, causing them to require more alcohol to gain the desired effects. A loss of control over the alcohol is achieved, and instead the alcohol controls you.

The alcohol’s control becomes evident in the withdrawal symptoms one may experience. While this simply constitutes a hangover — headaches, shakiness, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, vomiting — for occasional binge drinkers, the withdrawal symptoms are worse if binge drinking occurs on a regular basis. Aches, pains, increased blood pressure, rapid pulse and breathing, panic, seizures, hearing and seeing things that aren’t there, depression and even death can characterize the withdrawal symptoms of severe bingers.

Binge drinking is more harmful to brain cells than any other pattern of drinking. My thought: we are university students; we need all the brain cells we can scrounge together! It’s great to celebrate when finals are over with a few drinks but don’t celebrate all the way to the toilet, or even worse — the emergency room.