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What is Alcohol?

Alcohol comes in a variety of different forms. The type of alcohol related to spirits or drinking is made from ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Ethanol is the fermentation of sugar, yeast, and starch and contains fruit, grains, sugar, and other ingredients. 

Ethyl alcohol is one of four different types of alcohol but is the only one that’s safe to consume if done so in small or moderate doses.

Despite it being safe to consume responsibly, it is still an intoxicating agent. Many people consume it for its intoxicating features, as well as for its taste.

When used in moderation, drinking alcohol is enjoyable and relatively harmless. However, if over-consumed, alcohol can trigger dependence and a variety of different diseases and social and economic problems.

Binge drinking and frequent drunkenness are both signs of alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

What Ingredient in Alcohol Makes You Drunk?

Drunkenness is one of the side effects of consuming too much alcohol. The ethanol content in alcohol causes it.

Ethanol molecules are a byproduct of plant fermentation, which occurs when yeast ferments the sugar in the plant material used to create the beverage.

For example:

  • Beer is made from the sugar in malted barley
  • Wine is made from the sugar in grapes or other fruit
  • Vodka is made from the sugar in potatoes
  • Whiskey is made from the sugar in corn, rye, wheat, or barley 
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How Alcohol Travels Through Your Body

Initially, alcohol has a stimulating effect, but it is a depressant. The effects of alcohol begin the moment you start drinking. The more you drink, the more intense feelings you’ll experience.

Alcohol travels through your body along the following path:

Mouth

A small amount of alcohol enters your bloodstream as soon as it comes in contact with your tongue and other soft tissue in your mouth.

Small Intestine and Stomach

About a fifth of the alcohol you consume enters your bloodstream through the stomach. The remaining amount reaches your bloodstream through the small intestine. This is the reason why the food you eat before and while drinking affects drunkenness. 

Food helps with the absorption of alcohol in the stomach. It also affects the amount of time it takes for alcohol to reach your bloodstream, which is why drinking on an empty stomach is riskier than drinking with or after a meal.

Bloodstream

Once alcohol is in the bloodstream, it’s moved through the body quickly. This causes a variety of side effects, including flushed skin, a decrease in body temperature, and a drop in blood pressure.

Brain and Nervous System

Alcohol reaches your brain within about 5 to 10 minutes. Most people feel happy, more confident, and more social at this point. Their inhibitions drop. This is all caused by the release of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. 

As you consume more, alcohol interferes with your brain’s communication channels and depresses the central nervous system (CNS). At this stage, people experience loss of coordination, blurred vision, dizziness, and slowed speech.

Kidneys

The brain produces the antidiuretic hormone (ADH), which tells your kidneys how much water to conserve. When you drink alcohol, ADH production is limited. This causes the kidneys to release more water, which is why you need to use the bathroom so often when consuming alcohol. Not consuming enough non-alcohol fluid when drinking and urinating more often leads to dehydration.

Lungs

Many people are surprised to learn their lungs are affected when they drink alcohol. About 2 to 5 percent of the alcohol you drink is expelled via breath, urine, or sweat. This is why people smell like alcohol after a night of drinking and it’s why breathalyzers can measure your level of drunkenness.

Liver

The liver is responsible for oxidizing most of the alcohol you drink. It converts it to water and carbon monoxide. The liver is limited in how much it’s able to oxidize, which is why drinking fast raises your blood alcohol content and puts you at risk for alcohol poisoning. If you drink more than your liver can oxidize, you’re at risk.

Why Does Alcohol Make You Drunk?

Ethanol passes throughout your body via the digestive system and the bloodstream and passes through cell membranes.

In your brain, it depresses the central nervous system and triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin. It binds to glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter and prevents it from acting. This makes the brain slower to respond. Ethanol also binds to and activates gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which makes you feel calm and sleeping.

In addition to the effects alcohol has on everyone’s body, your drunkenness is also affected by age, gender, and weight. 

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How Does Alcohol Affect The Body?

Alcohol affects your body in a variety of ways, especially when you consume a lot of it. For example:

Physical Effects of Alcohol

In small doses, alcohol is mildly sedating and might affect your coordination. As you drink more, your speech slurs and you have trouble walking. Your body is slower to respond. Many people vomit, get dizzy, or experience blurred vision.

Mental Effects of Alcohol 

In addition to the physical effects of alcohol that other people can see, there are also mental effects of alcohol. People’s personalities change when they drink. Some get happy and confident, while others become aggressive or impulsive. Their emotions intensify and they might be extra affectionate or begin crying.

Despite the stimulating effects of alcohol, it is considered a depressant. This is because it slows the central nervous system (CNS). This is the area of the brain and spinal cord responsible for controlling motor function, regulating emotions, and reasoning.

Alcohol also affects the limbic system, which is the “emotional center” of the brain. It controls our behavior and emotions and helps with forming long-term memories. Alcohol is unlikely to affect your limbic system unless you’ve consumed a significant amount.

The Health Effects of Alcohol

How Alcohol Changes Your Behavior

Anyone who has been drunk knows that alcohol affects their behavior. Many people say or do things they are unlikely to say or do without a lot of alcohol in their system.

Alcohol affects how you react to your surroundings. It makes you impulsive and reduces your inhibitions. This is why there’s so much risk associated with drinking too much. Consuming alcohol also reduces short-sightedness, which means you’re less likely to notice cues and information about risks around you. 

What Actually Happens to Your Brain When You Get Drunk?

Chemical changes occur in the brain when you’re drunk. In addition to the effect alcohol has on serotonin and dopamine, it also increases norepinephrine. This is a neurotransmitter that causes arousal. 

Researchers believe this increase is linked to why drunk people are less inhibited. A drunk brain is more likely to seek pleasure without any consideration of negative consequences. 

Alcohol consumption triggers decreased activity in certain regions of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex and the temporal cortex. These regions are responsible for decision-making, rationalizing, prevention of aggressive behavior, and forming new memories. 

There is also a decrease in energy consumption in the cerebellum when someone drinks alcohol. This is the area of the brain that coordinates motor activity. This is why it’s difficult for drunk people to walk in a straight line or drive. 

Do Different Alcoholic Drinks Cause Different Drunk Feelings?

Ethanol is the cause of drunkenness, no matter the alcoholic beverage. Certain drinks might make you drunker due to a higher alcohol content.

However, any perceived difference in drunkenness is due to preconceived notions about different types of alcohol. It’s always ethanol, no matter whether you’re drinking beer, wine, or hard liquor.

If you feel different when you drink an ethanol-equivalent amount of wine and tequila, and you react differently, it’s your stereotypes about the alcohol. 

You might perceive wine as relaxing and tequila as energizing and great for a party, but the chemical effect in your brain is the same regardless of whether you drink wine or tequila.

How Do Hangovers Occur? 

Hangovers are caused by the secondary effects of alcohol. For example, alcohol is dehydrating, which causes hangover symptoms such as headaches and fatigue. After drinking a moderate to high amount of alcohol, you’ll feel a variety of unpleasant symptoms the next day.

Other hangover symptoms include:

  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Immune system suppression
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Low blood sugar
  • Dilated blood vessels
  • Sleeping difficulties

Hangover symptoms vary from person to person, regardless of the amount of alcohol consumed. Hangovers also tend to increase in severity as people age. Time is the only way to “cure” a hangover, but the following help to ease the symptoms:

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Eat a healthy meal
  • Use an antacid
  • Sleep
  • Take your usual daily supplements

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

If alcohol use is interfering with your life or you prioritize alcohol over other things in your life, treatment can help.

Alcohol misuse and addiction treatment options/resources are available in a variety of forms, including:

  • 12-step groups
  • Inpatient treatment
  • Outpatient treatment
  • Individual and family counseling
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

Resources

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WHO. “Alcohol.” Who.int, World Health Organization: WHO, 21 Sept. 2018, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/alcohol.

“Your Brain on Alcohol.” Psychology Today, 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/you-illuminated/201006/your-brain-alcohol.

Harvard Health Publishing. “Alcohol Abuse - Harvard Health.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health, 5 Dec. 2014, www.health.harvard.edu/addiction/alcohol-abuse.

“Factors That Affect How Alcohol Is Absorbed & Metabolized | Office of Alcohol Policy and Education.” Stanford.edu, 2019, https://www.alcohol.stanford.edu/alcohol-drug-info/buzz-buzz/factors-affect-how-alcohol-absorbed.

Merz, Beverly. “This Is Your Brain on Alcohol - Harvard Health Blog.” Harvard Health Blog, 13 July 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/this-is-your-brain-on-alcohol-2017071412000.

“ALCOHOL’S DAMAGING EFFECTS on the BRAIN.” Nih.gov, 2015, https://www.pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm.

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