We all know alcohol makes you drunk if you have enough of it, but do you know why? Or how?
Well, you will now! Read on to learn exactly why and how you go from drink to drunk.
Ethanol — also referred to as alcohol, ethyl alcohol, or grain alcohol — is the primary ingredient in alcoholic bevvies. It’s also the one that causes drunkenness.
Ethanol is a clear, colorless liquid that’s a byproduct of plant fermentation. This means it’s not produced on its own, but as a result of another process.
If you want to get a little more technical, ethanol is formed when yeast ferments the sugars in plants. For instance, beer is made from the sugars in malted barley, wine from the sugars in grapes, and vodka from the sugars in potatoes.
Alcohol is mainly a depressant, but it actually has stimulating effects when you first start drinking. It begins to do its thing pretty much the moment it goes into your mouth, and its effects become more noticeable as the alcohol makes its way through your body.
Here’s a closer look at that journey.
As soon as alcohol passes your lips, some of it gets into your bloodstream through the tiny blood vessels in your mouth and on your tongue.
Up to 20 percent of the alcohol you drink goes into your bloodstream through your stomach. The rest of it gets in your bloodstream via your small intestine.
If you have food in your stomach, the alcohol will stick around longer. Without food, though, it moves to your bloodstream a lot faster. The more alcohol in your blood at one time, the drunker you’ll feel.
This is where things get kind of intense.
Your bloodstream can move alcohol through your body quickly. This affects various bodily systems until your liver is able break down the alcohol.
When it’s in your bloodstream, alcohol also causes your blood vessels to widen. This may result in:
- skin flushing
- a temporary feeling of warmth
- a rapid decrease in body temperature
- a drop in blood pressure
Alcohol can hit you pretty fast. It typically reaches your brain within 5 minutes, and you can begin feeling the effects within 10 minutes.
When the concentration of alcohol begins to increase in your bloodstream, you’ll start to feel good. You might feel happy, more social and confident, and less inhibited. This is because alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine and serotonin, which are rightfully referred to as your “feel good” hormones.
As you get drunker, you’ll start to experience more physical symptoms. This happens because alcohol depresses your central nervous system and interferes with your brain’s communication pathways, which affects how your brain processes information.
This causes symptoms like:
- slurred speech
- loss of coordination
- blurred vision
Your brain produces antidiuretic hormone (ADH), which tells your kidneys how much water to conserve. Alcohol limits ADH production, which brings us to our next body part.
When alcohol suppresses ADH, it causes your kidneys to release more water, which is why you pee more when you drink.
This is where the idea of “breaking the seal” — which, BTW, isn’t actually true — comes from.
Peeing a lot and not getting enough nonalcoholic fluids can lead to dehydration and make you even more drunk.
Yup, some of the alcohol you drink makes it into your lungs. You breathe out about 8 percent of the alcohol you drink.
This alcohol evaporates from your blood through your lungs and moves into your breath. This is why you smell like a brewery after a night of drinking. It’s also the alcohol content that breathalyzer tests pick up.
When it comes to booze, your liver works hard oxidizing most of the alcohol and converting it to water and carbon monoxide.
Your liver can only oxidize one unit of alcohol per hour. So, the more you drink over a shorter period of time, the more alcohol hangs around in your bloodstream. The result is a higher blood alcohol content (BAC) and a higher risk of alcohol poisoning.
Your BAC definitely plays a role in drunkenness, but it doesn’t entirely jive with how drunk you feel. A lot of other things can affect that.
Factors that impact how drunk you feel include:
- Your weight. The less body tissue you have to absorb alcohol, the more — and faster — you’ll feel its effects. A bigger body gives the alcohol more space to diffuse.
- Your biological sex. Differences in body composition are why males and females metabolize alcohol at different rates. Females typically have more body fat, which holds on to alcohol longer. They also have less body water to dilute alcohol and fewer of the enzymes that metabolize it.
- Your age. As you age, your metabolism slows, your body fat percentage increases, and your body water decreases. This can all impact how your body processes alcohol and how it affects you.
- The type of alcohol. Alcohol content varies between drinks. Highly concentrated beverages, like vodka and gin, are absorbed faster by your body. It also absorbs fizzy and bubbly drinks, like champagne or soda mixes, quicker than other drinks.
- How fast you drink. Chugging rather than sipping will increase your BAC faster and cause you to feel drunker.
- How much food is in your stomach. Food in your stomach slows the absorption of alcohol. If you drink on an empty stomach, the alcohol is absorbed more rapidly, causing you to feel it faster and harder.
- Any medication you’re taking. Certain medications can affect absorption of alcohol or interact with it and intensify its effects.
- Your overall health. Certain health conditions, like those that affect liver and kidney function, can impact how your body processes and eliminates alcohol.
From the second you take a sip, alcohol starts working its way through your body, affecting everything from your mood to your muscles.
Just how hard it hits you depends on a lot of variables, which can make its effects difficult to predict.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow, or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddleboard.