Alcohol. It can be just the buzz we need on a night out or a cozy evening in. But how does alcohol get you drunk?
For better or worse, people drink booze for many reasons. Maybe they want to calm their nerves after a fraught day at the office. Perhaps they need to inflate their self-esteem when approaching someone they fancy.
They might instead be looking to drown their sorrows upon realizing the world is nothing more than a grain of sand on a vast cosmic beach. Cheers!
But why do our bodies and brains react in the way they do when alcohol enters our systems? We sip from the cup of truth, with a chaser of science.
The journey to slurry: How alcohol gets you drunk
Your body gets drunk in the following ways:
- In your mouth, alcohol mixes with saliva and enters your bloodstream through tiny blood vessels.
- Your stomach and small intestine absorb more alcohol into your bloodstream once it reaches them.
- Alcohol dilates your blood vessels. This causes that feeling of warmth.
- Your brain releases serotonin and dopamine to make you feel good.
- Your kidneys make and release a whole bunch of pee. This brings down the water levels in your body, increasing alcohol concentration.
- Alcohol vapor diffuses from your blood into your lungs.
- Your liver breaks alcohol down into water and carbon dioxide, making you feel less drunk.
Factors like age, sex, and body weight can also affect how drunk you feel after consuming booze.
Ethanol is the key ingredient in alcohol and the active component that gets you drunk. According to a 1997 study with rats, ethanol forms when yeast ferments the sugars in plants.
The sugar in barley makes beer, the sugar in grapes makes wine, and the sugar in potatoes makes vodka (go on, admit you didn’t know that last one).
It moves from the brewery to the bottle/can/tap to your mouth. From there, it causes effects through your body, gets you buzzed, and often kicks you right into a hangover the next day.
(You don’t have to get hangovers — here’s how to prevent them.)
Alcohol is a depressant. But it also has stimulating effects that start to take effect pretty much from the moment a drink touches your lips.
But you don’t just digest alcohol. It also flows through your bloodstream, making pit-stops at every part of your body. And it triggers unique effects in each one.
Let’s follow the alcohol in its journey as it rapidly slides down your system like a biological Splash Mountain.
Here’s where the ride begins.
As soon as alcohol passes your lips, the liquid combines with your saliva. Then, it finds its way into your bloodstream through tiny blood vessels in your mouth and on your tongue.
Your gut and stomach
According to the Health Promotion Agency, your bloodstream absorbs 20 percent of alcohol via your stomach. The remaining 80 percent comes from your small intestine.
Drinking small amounts of alcohol can stimulate your appetite because it increases the flow of stomach juices. The more food you eat, the longer the alcohol will stick around. This allows your stomach to absorb the alcohol and break it down before it reaches your small intestine and bloodstream.
Without grub in your gut, the concentration of alcohol in your blood quickly spikes, according to a small 1997 study. This is why it’s best not to drink on an empty stomach. Ethanol can also make your poops runny — here’s how.
Some people use alcohol in recipes — which might not suit nondrinkers. Learn how to replace booze in your brunch here.
More than just a beer belly: Long-term side effects of alcohol
According to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism, too much alcohol can irritate your stomach lining and cause gastric problems (o hai, hangover pukies).
Alcohol’s health impact can extend far beyond that morning after — especially if it’s one hangover of many.
Drinking too much all at once can cause irregular heart rhythms, which can be fatal. Irregular heart rhythms caused by too much alcohol even earned their name: holiday heart syndrome.
Excessive drinking can also cause serious liver conditions like:
- fatty liver
- alcoholic hepatitis
- cirrhosis, or scarring of your liver
Drinking too much booze too often can also increase a person’s risk of developing several cancers, including:
- head and neck cancer
- esophageal cancer
- liver cancer
- breast cancer
- colorectal cancer
It can also reduce your immune function, increasing your risk of developing infections.
Now we’re into the bloodstream. (To continue the theme park ride metaphor: the rapids.)
Alcohol causes several sensations in your body. It enters your blood (eww) and widens your blood vessels. According to American Addiction Centers, this could result in:
- skin flushes (and the trademark red face or discoloration)
- a rapid change in body temperature (you might get warmer or cooler)
- a drop in blood pressure
This occurs until your liver can break down the alcohol.
Your brain and nervous system
Meanwhile, what’s happening upstairs? Alcohol’s powerful effect on your brain means it can dull the parts that control how your body works.
Say goodbye to that self-control you once had. Alcohol affects your mood, actions and — most importantly — your decision-making, according to a small 2012 study.
However, these physical effects change as you drink more. You’ll start to experience:
- slurred words
- blurred vision
- loss of coordination
- low mood or aggression
Yes, watching someone ‘piss-pronounce their worms’ and fall over leaning on the bar can be hilarious. But on the inside, alcohol is depressing their central nervous system and interfering with the brain’s communication pathways, according to a 2013 research review.
Excessive drinking can cause changes in your cognition and memory (wait, you did what last night?). And, it’ll take some time before you change back into your Clark Kent “Soberman” alter ego.
Down in your kidneys, the alcohol is increasing your urine production. This is because of the antidiuretic hormone (ADH). This is a hormone that causes your kidneys to release more water.
You’ll be peeing like a powerful horse by the end of the night.
The alcohol you drink also subjects your airways to high levels of alcoholic vapor, according to a research review. This vapor diffuses from your blood into your lungs.
This is why breathalyzer tests can tell whether you should be getting behind the wheel.
Heavy drinking can damage your airways and increase your risk of developing a lung infection, according to another research review
Now we come on to the granddaddy: your liver. Through various pathways, the liver ultimately converts alcohol into water and carbon dioxide to eliminate it from your body, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
One 2005 research review showed that your liver eliminates more than 90 percent of alcohol in your blood. But your liver can only process one unit of alcohol per hour. So, your liver’s at the most risk from heavy drinking. Working it too hard isn’t a good idea.
Alcohol f*cks with your liver because this amazing organ gets its blood directly from your intestines — where most alcohol absorption happens.
Your liver helps make you less drunk by reducing the alcohol in your bloodstream. It certainly affects how long alcohol stays in your system.
Here are some other factors that impact on how drunk you feel when you’re sippin’:
- Weight. According to a small 2010 study, alcohol can mess with your metabolic function depending on your body weight. Higher body weight = more body water content = fewer effects from alcohol. Folks with a lower body mass index may feel the effects of alcohol more intensely — and faster.
- Sex. Males and females may have different tolerances. A research review showed that females have a lower water content throughout their bodies, and they are a bit smaller in size. So, they may experience the effects from alcohol more often.
- Age. Aging also interferes with your body’s tolerance to alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that adults more than 65 years old stick to one drink a day or less.
- Medication. According to a 1999 research review and a study, any medications you take can alter the effects of alcohol and vice versa. Be very careful when mixing that cocktail. Adderall, for example, is a complete no-go for mixing with alcohol.
- Type of alcohol. Different drinks have varying amounts of alcohol content. A pint of beer will pack less of a wallop than a pint of whiskey (and please, please, please never drink a pint of whiskey in one go). As they say, it’s not the size that counts. It’s how you use it.
- Your personality. These factors affect what types of emotions you experience. Your personality can have a huge impact. Who you are and who you’re drinking with (and whether you’re even drinking with others) can have a huge impact on how being drunk makes you feel.
Can’t put the can down? Help is at hand
Alcohol is a highly habit-forming depressant.
Frequently drinking heavy doses of alcohol can affect your brain and body. So, what do you do if you feel like you can’t stop drinking?
According to a research review, medication, behavioral programs, and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous can help treat alcohol misuse conditions.
To connect with support, please contact the A.A. General Service Office in New York on (212) 870-3400. There’s no shame in it. And it might just save your life.
Beating any substance misuse involves a significant and permanent lifestyle change — but you don’t have to do it alone.
In one small 2006 study, moderate consumption of alcohol reduced circulation of the stress hormone cortisol and increased levels of “feel-good” hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin. These supply those happy, pleasant, and carefree feelings.
But the key emphasis here is “moderate consumption.” And, it may not be the alcohol that’s making you feel good. Drinking is a fun, social activity — you’re hanging out with friends, and you might be celebrating a special occasion.
As 2020 showed us by taking parties away — being social is special. And it’s still special when you’re not drunk. So, try to disassociate that buzz from genuine happiness. A drink or two is a great social lubricant. Vomiting into a gutter at 4:00 a.m. is not a joyful activity.
The short-term behavioral effects of alcohol share the same traits as the short-term effects of other drugs. The greater the dose, the greater the effects — and the higher the peak from which you nosedive.
Those buzzy, first-drunk feelings are always only temporary. You can plummet from cloud nine to ground zero in a heartbeat.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, another slippery slope with links to alcohol misuse is binge drinking. This can increase the risk of blackouts, overdose, and the likelihood of potentially fatal consequences.
When you get wavy, alcohol enters your blood through your mouth, gut, and stomach, and even your lungs.
Your brain releases feel-good hormones and your kidneys generate a lot of pee. Your liver responds by breaking the alcohol down into water and carbon dioxide.
However, those feel-good vibes can quickly turn to confusion, slurred speech, and risky decisions. And regularly getting on them can lead to long-term and potentially fatal complications in your liver, heart, and stomach.