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Updated on July 31, 2023
7 min read

Why Does Alcohol Make You Drunk?

Kelly Brown
Elena Borrelli M.S.PAC
Written by 
7 Sources Cited
Kelly Brown
Written by 
7 Sources Cited

What is Alcohol?

Ethyl alcohol is one of the four different types of alcohol, and it's the only safe one that can be consumed in small or moderate doses. It contains various ingredients and is made by fermenting sugar, yeast, and starch.

Many people consume it for its intoxicating features as well as its taste. However, despite being safe to drink, it can still negatively affect you if you drink too much.

Drinking alcohol excessively can lead to:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Cancer
  • Weakening immune system
  • Learning and memory problems
  • Mental health problems (anxiety, depression, etc.)
  • Social problems
  • Financial problems
  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcohol dependence

If you or someone you know drinks excessively, consider talking to a healthcare professional. Binge drinking and frequent drunkenness are signs of 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 is absorbed 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. When it reaches your stomach, it absorbs into the bloodstream.

The remaining amount reaches your bloodstream through the small intestine. This is why consuming food before and while you drink affects drunkenness. 

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

Bloodstream

Once alcohol is in the bloodstream, it quickly moves through the body. This causes various 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 happier, more confident, more social, and have fewer inhibitions.

The brain's release of serotonin and dopamine causes this. As you consume more alcohol, it interferes with your brain’s communication channels and depresses the central nervous system (CNS).

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 and causes the kidneys to release more water.

This is why you have to frequently use the bathroom when consuming alcohol. Not consuming enough non-alcohol fluid when drinking and urinating more may lead 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 sometimes smell like alcohol after a night of heavy drinking. It is also 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 can oxidize. Drinking fast raises your blood alcohol content (BAC) and puts you at risk for alcohol poisoning. You risk damaging your liver if you drink more than it can oxidize.

Why Does Alcohol Make You Drunk?

Ethanol passes throughout your body via the digestive system before passing through the bloodstream and the cell membranes. In your brain, it depresses the CNS and triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin.

It binds to a neurotransmitter called glutamate 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 sleepy. In addition to the effects alcohol has on the 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 various 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, you may experience:

  • Slurred speech
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Slower reactions
  • A loss of coordination or trouble walking

Mental Effects of Alcohol 

Despite the stimulating effects of alcohol, it is considered a depressant. It affects the part of the brain that controls motor function, emotions, and reasoning.

The mental effects of alcohol include:

  • Personality changes
  • Intensified emotions
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Learning problems
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 when they have not consumed alcohol.

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 risk cues and other information around you. 

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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 considering negative consequences. 

Alcohol consumption triggers decreased activity in certain regions of the brain that are responsible for:

  • Decision-making
  • Rationalization
  • Preventing aggressive behavior
  • Forming new memories

When someone drinks, there is also a decrease in energy consumption in the cerebellum. The cerebellum is the area of the brain that coordinates voluntary movement. 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 higher alcohol content.

However, any perceived difference in drunkenness based on the drink is due to preconceived notions about different types of alcohol. It’s always ethanol, 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 likely 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? 

The secondary effects of alcohol can cause hangovers. 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 typically feel various 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 by person, regardless of the amount of consumed alcohol. Hangovers also tend to increase in severity as people age. Time is the only way to “cure” a hangover, but the following can ease 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, treatment can help. Alcohol misuse and addiction treatment options and resources are available in a variety of forms, including:

Updated on July 31, 2023
7 sources cited
Updated on July 31, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. WHO. “Alcohol.” Who.int, World Health Organization: WHO, 2018.

  2. Your Brain on Alcohol.” Psychology Today, 2010.

  3. Harvard Health Publishing. “Alcohol Abuse - Harvard Health.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health, 2014.

  4. Factors That Affect How Alcohol Is Absorbed & Metabolized | Office of Alcohol Policy and Education.” Stanford.edu, 2019.

  5. Merz, Beverly. “This Is Your Brain on Alcohol - Harvard Health Blog.” Harvard Health Blog, 2017.

  6. ALCOHOL’S DAMAGING EFFECTS on the BRAIN.” Nih.gov, 2015.

  7. "Alcohol Metabolism." Bowling Green State University.

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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