Most people have figured out that a useful strategy to sober up after several beers, is to order a strong black coffee. You are playing a balancing act between suppressing your central nervous system with alcohol and stimulating it with caffeine. The strategy works well if you are using it to ensure that you are able to make a somewhat graceful exit from the party. You manage to leave, without toppling over on the floor.
But it is important to understand that mixing alcohol and caffeine can kill. When you start drinking caffeine along with alcohol, which is effectively what you are doing if you are alternating your drinks order i.e. beer followed by an energy drink such as Red Bull® or Play®, beer etc. or drinking Four Loko® type products. You will be able to party for longer, but the consequences could be lethal.
Carousing brain pharmacology
So here comes the pharmacology lesson to explain what is really going on in your partying brain.
I already told you alcohol is a central nervous system suppressant (which is a fancy way of saying it turns your brain off). How much your brain is turned off, depends on how much alcohol is in your system.
So let’s assume you are an average person. What happens…..
Drink number 1
The first glass of wine/beer will take the edge off (especially if you have a type A personality) as you “relax” or become “less inhibited”, you enjoy yourself and the people around you, a little more.
It is much easier to chat, because the little voice in your head, which continually warns you to watch what you say and not act like a twit, finally goes silent. Jokes that are not particularly funny under normal circumstances, suddenly hit the funny bone. You might feel a little sleepy at this point, especially if it has been a rough day, but you’re not asleep just “very” relaxed.
The next few drinks
The next few glasses might see you start to cross the line, from being sociable, to out of control, freaky weird or obnoxious – what comes out reflects, what is going on inside of you.
The freaky weird could involve getting onto the table and stripping, dancing with a broom or hopping into the sack with the first available candidate. Unprotected sex can result in a baby or worse an HIV infection.
The obnoxious could be being verbally or physically abusive. This is because the brain circuits that ensure that you behave in socially acceptable ways, have stopped working. You do things that you often regret but seldom remember all the details.
You will also find other circuits are shutting down, so you are likely to find it a little difficult to co-ordinate your body. Walking in a straight line is likely to be a challenge, speaking is also likely to be more complicated and speech is typically slurred.
Alcohol and driving
If you get behind the wheel of your car, the odds of having an accident are pretty high, because you are no longer able to judge distances very well and your reflexes have slowed to such a point that snails look speedy.
As you continue drinking, more and more circuits shut down, at some point you pass out because enough of the wiring has shut down. You would be considered to be in a drunken stupor.
The drunken stupor
The “passing” out is your brain protecting itself – if more circuits shut down, you could forget how to breath, which would be the end of you.
Of course, if you can manage to continue drinking, the overall effect will be to switch off more circuits until the brain is switched off completely i.e. you’re dead.
Crossing over to the other side
It happens, you can cross from a stupor to a coma to dead.
The caffeine “fix”
So what happens when you add caffeine to your drinking binge ? Caffeine is classified as a central nervous system stimulant (a fancy term describing the fact that it switches the brain on).
The cup of strong black coffee, swigged down at the end of a dinner party, probably has 70 mg of caffeine in it. Enough to give you a little bit of a lift and produce that sobering up effect. Certainly enough to compensate for the sleepy relaxed feelings brought on by the alcohol. The little alcohol, along with the little caffeine, might mean that by the time you finally get home, the relaxed sleepy feeling has worn off and you struggle to fall asleep.
Energy drink “fix up”
Energy drinks have at least double, often times even more caffeine in them, so they can potentially give you A BIG lift.
The way caffeine is working, is it is “tricking” your brain into thinking you are not tired, effectively cancelling out the message that the alcohol is sending. Your brain gets mixed up.
The alcohol is turning your brain off. Caffeine is turning the circuits on. The overall result is instead of passing out, when more and more of the brain circuits switch off, you keep going.
Unfortunately you usually keep drinking, so the blood alcohol concentration keeps rising.
It appears that you are a party machine – you keep going and going, but inside your brain, vital circuits are shutting down one by one. The caffeine boost overrides the protective mechanism, putting you at risk. The final result vital systems such as breathing are switched off which can result in death.
The combination is lethal. The risk is real – a student at the university where I taught died earlier this year. He was celebrating the end of exams, but instead of the exams being a milestone in his life, it ended up being a gravestone, when he choked on his own vomit i.e. he forgot to breath.
Play it safe – don’t mix alcohol and caffeine.
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