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Why Does Alcohol Make You Drunk?

You get drunk when you consume alcohol faster than your body can break it down.

Even though alcohol affects everyone differently, the way it is broken down by the liver is the same for everyone. 

More specifically, as you drink alcohol, the liver starts breaking it down. An enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase breaks alcohol down to acetaldehyde. This chemical is further broken down into acetic acid. 

However, if you drink too much alcohol, your liver will not be able to break it down quickly. This causes you to feel drunk. 

Heavy alcohol consumption can be dangerous and lead to alcohol poisoning and even death. If you’re wondering, “How drunk am I?” you can use a breathalyzer or try a field sobriety test to check. 

If you or someone you know is too drunk, it’s wise to stop drinking sooner rather than later, though it’s not easy to make that decision while under the influence.

How Many Alcoholic Drinks Does it Take to Get Drunk?

How much alcohol it takes to get drunk differs for everyone based on a number of factors. These include: 

  • The amount of alcohol consumed
  • Gender
  • Weight
  • Age
  • Medications
  • Food intake
  • Hydration level 

Generally speaking, once your blood alcohol content or blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches a certain level, you’re drunk. Your BAC is expressed as the weight of ethanol (measured in grams) in 100 milliliters of blood. In most U.S. states, a .08 percent BAC is the legal limit for drivers who are at least 21 years old, which is the legal drinking age. 

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What Does it Feel Like to be Drunk?

Being drunk can feel different for different people. But many of the signs and symptoms are the same across the board. Here are a few signs and symptoms that you’re drunk:

  • You’re slurring your speech.
  • You’re having difficulty seeing straight.
  • You’ve lost your balance.
  • You’re exaggerating your behaviors (speaking loudly, acting boldly, etc.).
  • You’ve lost your sense of judgment and inhibitions.
  • You’re feeling warm.
  • You’re feeling lightheaded.
  • You’re feeling more outgoing and less shy than usual.
  • You’re feeling nauseous with or without vomiting.
  • You’re passing out.
  • You’re experiencing lapses in memory.

Typically, you’ll feel varying symptoms depending on how drunk you actually are. The drunker you get, the more and worse symptoms you’ll have. 

The Difference Between Being Tipsy and Drunk

Being tipsy and drunk are similar but they’re not the same. While you may feel a sense of euphoria while tipsy, you will still have control over your mental and physical responses. 

However, when you’re drunk, you start to lose your senses more and your inhibitions diminish. How you behave depends on how drunk you are.

What are the Different Stages of Being Drunk?

Here are nine different stages of being drunk:

1. BAC .02 to .03

If your BAC is .02 to .03, you may feel a little more relaxed, euphoric, and outgoing. You may feel a bit lightheaded, but you won’t have lost your coordination yet.

2. BAC .05 to .06

At a 0.05 to a 0.06 BAC, you’ll feel warmer and even more relaxed and outgoing. You may experience some minor impairment of your reasoning, and you may exaggerate your behaviors (talking louder, acting bolder, etc.). 

Your emotions will also feel intensified. This means your good mood will get better but your bad mood could get worse. 

3. BAC .08 to .09

At a .08 to a .09 BAC, you’ll believe that you’re functioning better than you are in reality. For example, you may start to slur your speech and rock off balance. Your motor skills will become impaired, and your vision and hearing will also diminish. 

This BAC level affects your judgment, and you may feel like you’re wearing “beer goggles.”

4. BAC .10 to .12

Once your BAC hits .10 to .12, you’ll experience serious motor coordination impairment and will have a significant loss of judgment skills. You may slur your speech, lose your balance, have trouble seeing and hearing, and react slower. You may also become louder and belligerent.

5. BAC .14 to .17

At a .14 to a .17 BAC, you’ll have significant motor impairment, a lack of physical control, a major loss of balance, and a very difficult time seeing or hearing clearly. You may even blackout at this BAC.

6. BAC .20 to .25

At a .20 BAC to a .25 BAC, your mental, physical, and sensory functions are super impaired. You’ll start to feel significantly confused and may need help to walk or stand. If you injure yourself, it’s common that you won’t feel the pain or do anything about it. 

You may feel nauseous and vomit at this level and, because your gag reflex is impaired, it’s easy to choke. Blackouts are likely. 

7. BAC .30

At a .30 BAC, you’ll have very little comprehension with all of the symptoms of lesser BAC levels, but worse. At this point, it’s likely that you pass out.

8. BAC .35

The .35 BAC level is the level of surgical anesthesia, which means that coma is possible and you may stop breathing. 

9. BAC .40

At a .40 BAC, you’ll probably be in a coma as the nerve centers that control your heartbeat and respiration slow down. At this level and beyond, death due to respiratory arrest is also possible.

Dangers of Alcohol Intoxication

Alcohol intoxication is a danger for many reasons. Not only is an intoxicated person a danger to themselves, but they’re also a danger to those around them. For example, about 55 percent of domestic abuse perpetrators were drinking alcohol before the assault.

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning and even death. In fact, an estimated 95,000 people (about 68,000 men and 27,000 women) lose their lives from alcohol-related causes every single year. In 2015 alone, alcohol-impaired driving deaths accounted for 10,265 fatalities (29 percent of all driving deaths overall).

If you or someone you know is in danger, reach out for help immediately.

Other Side Effects of Alcohol Use

While drinking alcohol can feel like a lot of fun in the moment, there are some serious side effects of which to be aware. Other longer-term side effects of alcohol use include the following:

  • Hangover
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Liver disease/damage
  • Cardiovascular concerns
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive problems
  • Weakened immune system
  • Alcohol addiction (alcoholism)

How to Sober Up From Alcohol (Addiction Treatment)

There is no way to “sober up fast,” and, unfortunately, the journey to sobriety can be dangerous on one’s own. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe, so it’s important that you seek addiction treatment to help you along the road to recovery.

Fortunately, alcohol addiction treatment is readily available. Reach out to your local inpatient or outpatient rehab center, or contact support groups in your area.

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Resources

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“Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

“Blood Alcohol Content and YOU.” Student Health Services - Blood Alcohol Content and YOU, wellness.ucsd.edu/studenthealth/resources/health-topics/alcohol-drugs/Pages/BAC-you.aspx.

“Blood Alcohol Level: MedlinePlus Medical Test.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 Dec. 2020, medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/blood-alcohol-level/

“Drinking Too Much Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. Learn the Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Jan. 2021, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

“Intimate Partner Violence and Alcohol.” World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/factsheets/fs_intimate.pdf

“The Science of the Sauce: What Happens to Your Brain When You Drink Alcohol? - Brain Health, Health Topics, Neuroscience.” Hackensack Meridian Health, 26 Mar. 2019, www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/HealthU/2018/12/27/what-happens-to-brain-drink-alcohol/.

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