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Drinking and diving: is it worth it?

Most of the times when you tell someone you are a scuba diver they’ve already labeled you as the cool guy/gal practicing an extreme sport. You’re the perfect swimmer, courageous to the bone – not afraid of water, sharks or whatever other creatures loom in the deep blue ocean, perfectly fit and prepared to practice such a “dangerous” sport, not to mention expensive. They look up to you in admiration probably thinking they’ll never be able to do it themselves… Or so I’ve been told most of the times I’ve dared open my mouth and proclaim I’m a scuba diver;). Truth be told, diving is just like any other sport: you learn what to do and then you apply it in each and every dive, you learn from experience and from others, you learn by further training. Being a sport, of course, you need to be somewhat fit for it; however scuba divers gather a wide variety of lifestyles and individuals, small or big, skinny or round, young or old, smokers or non-smokers, drinkers or non-drinkers.
Diving recreationally, i.e. now and then, not working as a professional diver, when you’re on holiday, in the sun, relaxing and doing what you love – diving, a beer or two might creep into your hand at the end of a diving day. The questions to explore are: how does the alcohol intake impacts you as a scuba diver and is it really worth it when on a trip focused on diving?
Alcohol and your body: elimination rates and impact Undoubtedly, individual organisms react differently to alcohol, metabolizing it at different rates. It might be interesting to find out how the alcohol affects you, personally, so you know how to better handle it when on a diving trip. An informative (not comprehensive intended) list states that we eliminate alcohol at different rates based on:

- age (as we get older it takes longer to get it out of the system); - gender (usually, women eliminate alcohol faster than men, although the increased body fat and smaller size of a woman do lead to higher blood alcohol levels); – race or ethnicity (alcohol is broken down by a liver enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase [ADH]; levels of this enzyme differ between races, being high in Europeans and sometimes nearly non-existent in Asians or those from the Americas, thus the pronounced “facial flush” response occasionally seen); – physical condition (body weight influences the rate in which the alcohol clears from your body, while improved physical fitness will speed it up to some degree); – quantity of food consumed prior to drinking (ingested food slows down the assimilation of alcohol); – how fast the alcohol was consumed (drinking fast – several drinks on one occasion or drinking competitions – may overwhelm the liver, which can only process roughly one drink per hour); – use of drugs or prescription medicines (these can often interact with alcohol and worsen its effects).

Cristian Mărgărit, Romanian nutritionist, fitness and lifestyle advisor/Guru told mydive.ro how the alcohol affects the human body: “Even though the [alcohol] producing industry induces the idea that a «moderate alcohol intake is beneficial to your health», the reality is that this «moderation» is set by science at a few grams of alcohol per day, lowered from 14-28g (one-two standard servings per day) to 7g in the past years. To be precise, that means the equivalent of 50-100ml of wine or 100-150ml of beer (depending on the content of each beverage). The «beneficial» effects are still incompletely explained scientifically (statistics are only presented for people who have an unknown lifestyle) however, the harmful ones are countless and affect negatively most of the human body’s tissues. The long-term alcohol consumption, even in small amounts, can lead over time to a wear of the nervous and hormonal systems, a premature aging of the organism and the onset of degenerative diseases before their time. For women, the «allowed» alcohol quantities are reduced by half, while the negative effects (particularly breast cancer) are considerable higher than in men.Of course, it’s up to you to decide when and how much to drink, but you should do it fully aware of the consequences alcohol has on your body (mood and behavior change, heart and liver problems, weakened immune system etc.). Alcohol and diving: hangovers, impaired judgment, diminished performance On a different note, even when the alcohol has been partially or totally eliminated from your system, waking up with a hangover and intending to dive has a big impact on you and your buddy. Being under the influence or having been in the past 24h results, according to DAN and the London Diving Chamber, in:

- diminished awareness; – diminished concentrated attention; – diminished visual tracking performance; – impaired judgment: decline in the ability to process information (even after alcohol levels are zero – hangover); – memory problems – diminished reaction time; – diminished ability of execution of psychomotor tasks; – reduced inhibitions; – not to mention that the idea of vomiting in your regulator – which is a real possibility, is no fun at all.

For sportsmen, a few significant issues are of concern, beside the usual ones: loss of focus and coordination, balance disorder, depression, sleep dynamic disturbance  (poor rest, even though you fall asleep faster), dehydration (thicker blood and additional effort for the heart), an estrogenic effect (through testosterone conversion), needless stress on the liver (involved also in detoxifying the natural products of physical effort), alteration of carbohydrates and fat metabolism (thus the energy producing mechanisms, speeding the installation of muscle fatigue).”, explains Cristian Mărgărit from his more than a decade of experience in fitness and nutrition. So, to sum it up: “alcohol is a depressant drug that slows certain body functions by depressing the entire central nervous system. Effects are noticeable after one drink.” Such “effects are mood elevation, mild euphoria, a sense of well being, slight dizziness and some impairment of judgment, self control, inhibitions and memory. Ingestion of even small amounts of alcohol does not improve performance: to the contrary it degrades performance.” Even after the alcohol has been cleared from your system it “does not necessarily mean that the decrements in performance have been completely eliminated in that time. The deleterious effects of alcohol on performance are consistently underestimated by persons who have been drinking alcohol. Alcohol is involved in 50% +/- of all accidents involving persons of drinking age.” Therefore, as someone said: “your hangover won’t get worse from diving, but your diving will get worse from the hangover”. Alcohol and diving: dehydration, DCS, narcosis at a shallower depth Consequently, the main danger of drinking and diving, even when not inebriated at the time of the dive (“feeling fine does not necessarily equate to physiologically being fine”), is not how the alcohol affects your body in general, but more specifically how it impacts it at depth. Besides impairing your judgment, another major concern of consuming alcohol is its dehydrating effect on the body. It’s common knowledge that an important factor in DCS is dehydration. Being in a scuba diving holiday there are already enough dehydration favoring factors you have to consider for your wellbeing (hot environment – losing liquids through sweating; urination – especially when exacerbated by diuretics like alcohol or caffeine; stomach upsets due to travelling or seasickness – particularly those which involve diarrhea and/or vomiting; respiration – breathing dry air from your tank which had its moisture content significantly removed during filling; not drinking enough water; even dry suit users are affected etc.),  to have to add alcohol consumption to the list. While dehydrated, your muscles don’t perform as they should; your blood volume is lower than usual by being thicker, so the gasses travel slower, so it’s more difficult to off-gas the nitrogen accumulated in your body. Even though the DCS favored by dehydration is still a challenged statement by certain studies, technical divers still take it seriously, as Divernet states in an article: “Those who consider themselves «serious divers» are concerned about keeping themselves hydrated. Technical divers, who spend a long time in the water on decompression stops, will often avoid alcohol on their dive trips and take fluids to consume in-water. Nappies and pee-valves are the order of the day for dry-suited tekkies, because they must take on fluids and they don’t have the option of ending their dive early!Constantin “Costa” Benedic, Romanian scuba diving instructor for different organizations (PADI IDC Staff Instructor, ANDI Technical SafeAir Instructor (Technical Tri-Mix) L3, TDI Advanced Nitrox Instructor, DAN Instructor), told mydive.ro: “Scuba diving and alcohol: one word, incompatible! Consumed both before and after a dive, the alcohol affects the central nervous system and increases the chances that your body will dehydrate, which, in its turn, dehydration is a favoring factor for DCS. The complete theory about the relation between alcohol (and smoking) and diving can be found on expert websites, so treat it with uttermost seriousness.” However, due to the fact that the inebriation symptoms are similar to those found in DCS, if there’s a suspicion, you will HAVE to be treated in the hyperbaric chamber as a preventive course of action, as you can’t clearly determine which the real source of your symptoms is. Another cause of concern when drinking and diving is the possible onset of narcosis at a shallower depth (less than 30-40m), which, in extreme cases, can lead to drowning. Just as combining one sedative drug with another can have dramatic results, combining gas narcosis with a sedative such as alcohol can have the same outcome. As mentioned in the PADI Encyclopedia of Recreational Diving (pg. 5-22, Chapter author: Karl Shreeves, John Lewis, PhD), sedatives “[…] have an anticholinergic effect, meaning they block transmission of certain nerve signals, which is thought to be the primary way that anesthesia occurs. At sea level, these drugs may have some sedative effect, though you may not notice it. At depth, however, their effects may increase gas narcosis through their synergist action. Alcohol is a particularly powerful drug in this regard […]. Some of these drugs have been documented to cause extreme narcosis at depths as shallow as 18 meters/60 feet. Handling things on diving trips, dive safety, peer pressure When it comes to policies, standards and recommendations, most agencies work towards “reinforcing a culture to separate alcohol from diving activities”. Worldwide, entities such as NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the US Navy, Reef Check Australia and a series of universities, have all regulated the alcohol intake when diving. The accepted standard is that “divers should refrain from alcohol consumption for a minimum of 12 hours prior to diving”. When diving over multiple days consuming alcohol is highly discouraged, proper hydration is of essence, as is resting and eating properly. Keeping all of the above in mind, the hardest task seems to be that of the organizer or manager of a group trip, responsible for how the diving occurs and the risks taken. Well, he/she can get inspired by diving operators all over the world and choose the right course of action for that particular situation. You can even arrive at choosing a very “Catholic” way of handling things, enforce a lights-out curfew and limit the amount of alcohol one can drink before/after a dive. The basis for this is simple: in the end, you’re accountable for your clients; you’ve brought them on a trip and you’re responsible to take them home safely. Of course, everyone is an adult and in charge of their actions and behavior, but as an organizer, you are there to mitigate any problems arising from a difference of opinion and, surely, it will not do any good to your reputation to have incidents due to alcohol consumption allowed on your trips… That’s why you can even choose to offer divers a “diver refusing advice” waiver to sign. It has happened in some situations to refuse the filling of the tanks for divers drinking and to ban them from diving. What is better: to be called a party pooper or to be the one who couldn’t manage the situation and its consequences? In the case of group trips, the problem is not what you are doing in your dive holiday – you’re a grown person and responsible for yourself, the question is how your buddy’s safety and that of other divers is affected by your drinking behavior. Not to mention, if something ought to happen, the entire group would be affected in such a group trip. Michael Elbeshausen, PADI Regional Manager for Northern Germany and Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia), told mydive.ro in a recent interview on the subject of drinking and diving on a liveaboard: “Well, basically, drinking and diving doesn’t match at all… this is what my papa told me, who started diving in 1971, and I never broke that rule, except for this sole situation in Bonaire, and that was a real impact and a real experience for me and from that, well, I’m 42 now, so half of my life I never did it again, so it was a life lesson.” Last, but not least, another important issue to consider when taking part in a group trip is peer pressure. Because the prospect of not being part of the “funny” group can represent for many a deciding factor in accepting to drink and, further, to dive after in an unsafe manner. And, before choosing what to do, keep in mind that the “alcohol can never make you do a thing better; it can only make you less ashamed of your mistakes.Safe diving!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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