The science of alcohol and its effects

In the right measure it is the life of the party. But it is enough to cross a fine (and rather fluid) line for alcohol to reveal its intoxicating nature. The effects of the classic “hangover” on the organism and behavior are well recognizable. But how does alcohol affect the brain? Why do we keep consuming it, even if it hurts? How come it first seems to pick up, and later it throws down?

Forgetful and sedated. At a neurological level, alcohol affects the activity of various neutrotransmitters, the “messengers” that carry information between neurons: in particular, it inhibits the activity of glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, and enhances that of gamma-aminobutyric acid. (GABA), the major inhibitory neurotransmitter. The first action has visible – negatively – effects on problem solving skills and memory; the second, has an anxiolytic and sedative effect on those who have drunk, similar to that of some psychotropic drugs (this is why those who use them should avoid drinking).

Volume down. Some of the most evident “suppressive” effects of alcohol affect the activity of the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes: the former is responsible for rational thinking, the ability to program, suppress anger, make objective assessments: all tasks that appear gradually more difficult, after the third “average” of the evening. The temporal lobes play a crucial role in memory: this is why we tend to forget things and become incoherent when we are drunk.

Volume up. But the depressive effect does not affect all areas of the brain. Alcohol increases the activity of dopamine neurons in the mesolimbic reward circuit, and at the same time encourages the release of endorphins. That’s why after a glass or two, the evening takes off, with feelings of joy, euphoria and sharing. Drinking also dulls the activity of the brain areas responsible for inhibition and stress, and creates a general sense of relaxation.

Double-sided. But at a certain point of the toasts, it often happens that the atmosphere goes out, and that the initial enthusiasm changes into sadness. This happens because alcohol has a biphasic trend: its effects, that is, appear different and contrasting according to the level of intoxication. Scientific evidence suggests that alcoholic happiness peaks when the blood alcohol concentration is 0.05-0.06%.

That’s enough for me, thanks. After that threshold, it is the negative effects that prevail. The ideal for those who do not want to give up a glass or two would be to keep within this limit, but understanding when it has been reached may not be easy, because the effects of alcohol vary from person to person. Social pressure also plays a strong role in the decisions of each person.

Deciding to stop in a context where everyone else continues to drink is, even unknowingly, very difficult.

It is much older than people think. When one thinks of wine in history, the lavish banquets of Roman nobles immediately come to mind. But at the time of those toga meals, wine was already an ancient drink: in some fragments of pottery found in a Neolithic village in the Zagros mountains, in Iran, and dating back to 7,000 years ago, residues of pressed and preserved grapes were found.

It was a Caucasian specialty. Just over 300 km north of the Zagros mountains, in the Armenian village of Areni, archaeologists found a grape press, fermentation barrels, jars and cups used for wine as early as 4,000 years ago (here a relief that shows Armenian peoples bringing wine offerings to a ruler).

It has always existed because … it’s easy to do. The secret of the longevity of the wine would be precisely the ease with which it is obtained (in less demanding processes). The grapes are picked, pressed, the juice is allowed to come into contact with the yeasts naturally present on the skins, and the “paleo-wine” is served

There are no longer the vines of the past … The main difference between today’s domestic grapes and the wild ones of the past is in the pollination. Wild grapes are dioecious: that is, there are female and male specimens of the same species and for the female one to produce fruit, it is essential that it be pollinated by a male plant. Domestic grapes, on the other hand, are hermaphrodite and capable of self-pollination, a characteristic that helps to maintain, over time, the main genetic traits of the species.

Once upon a time, sweets were appreciated. Those who prefer wines with a dry and decisive flavor would be surprised if they could participate in a tasting of 5,000 years ago. A 2008 study of wine in the Neolithic villages of ancient Asia concluded that sweetness was once the most popular trait in this drink. It would have been precisely this characteristic that facilitated its diffusion.

It is a European product. In 2015, more than 60% of the world’s wine was produced by European Union countries. In first place that year, Italy was placed with 48.9 million hectoliters, France second (46.6 million) and Spain third (36.6).

Why is it made with grapes? Grapes are the ideal fruit – and the only one by definition – for the production of wine because it contains the right proportions of water, sugars, acids and tannins (compounds contained in the skin, seeds and woody part of the bunch) necessary for the fermentation. Thanks to this perfect balance, the yeasts multiply and the sugars break down into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Drinks made from the fermentation of other fruits require the addition of extra ingredients to achieve the same balance (and in any case they cannot be called “wine”).

Northern connoisseurs. The Vikings called the northern part of the American continent (the Canadian island of Newfoundland) Vinland, “land of wine”, with reference to the large quantities of wild vines that grew there. At the time of their explorations of this region, perhaps around the year 1000, temperatures must have been slightly higher in North America, and growing grapes suitable for wine production must have been easier. See also: 15 things you (maybe) don’t know about Viking.

It is threatened by climate change. Regions traditionally linked to the production of wine are becoming too hot to respect the delicate rhythms of the harvest, the change of which can compromise an entire vintage. A study published in March 2016 in Nature Climate Change showed how, due to climate change, grapes ripen early even in the presence of humid summers (which normally delay the harvest). On the other hand, countries where wine production would once have been unthinkable, such as England, Sweden or Norway, now boast a respectable wine sector (in the photo, researchers study the impact of global warming on a grape variety ). See also: What global warming takes away from us

His greatest enemy was imported. The vine phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae), an insect that devours the roots of the vine, was imported to Europe from North America in the second half of the nineteenth century. The American vines were resistant to his attacks, but not the European ones, which since 1863 suffered the repercussions of the pest with an economic crisis in the sector that lasted 30 years. It was solved with the grafting of European vines on American vines: today almost all the vines in the world are the result of grafting, except the Chilean ones, which have not been attacked by the phylloxera (perhaps due to the natural protective barrier offered by the Andes).

Why does the red one go well with meat? Because the tannins it contains produce a feeling of “dryness” that compensates for the greasiness left by a steak. According to a US study, these compounds typical of grape skins would be able to restore the feeling of “dry mouth” after taking greasy foods, a property that green tea would also have: this is why Orientals sometimes opt for this alternative.

Does a glass a day extend life? Not so fast. The role of resveratrol, an antioxidant contained in red wine (but also in dark chocolate and berries) is not yet fully understood. The antioxidant benefits attributed to this substance have not found sufficient scientific evidence and the protective role on cardiovascular health attributed to “half a glass of wine at dinner” is due more to alcohol consumed in low quantities, than to resveratrol. But at the same time, alcohol is also a carcinogen and the few beneficial effects it gives can also be obtained with a healthy lifestyle, avoiding smoking, following a correct diet and exercising.

How is it tasted? Pour, observe, rotate slowly, smell, turn again … that of tasting is a complex art, which we have summarized in 7 steps: here they are, for all aspiring sommeliers.

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