From rushes of dopamine to a compromised immune system.
People don’t always stop to think about what’s going on in the brain and body as they throw back shots of whiskey, but alcohol affects us in plenty of interesting ways as intoxication levels rise.
Sure, the questionable decisions and nearly-superhuman ability to inhale an entire pizza go hand-in-hand with being drunk, but let’s dive into the actual physiological science behind being drunk.
1. Within minutes, the effects of alcohol can begin to kick in
According to Alcohol.org.nz, alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream after consumption — about 20 percent through the stomach and 80 percent through the small intestine — kickstarting the effects of the substance in about 5 to 10 minutes.
2. Alcohol slows down the communication between neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brains that carry messages between neurons, the tiny nerve cells that send messages from the brain to the rest of the body. Neurotransmitters can either intensify or minimize the body’s responses, feelings, and mood, and alcohol can slow the pace of communication between neurotransmitters, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
3. You may feel relaxed and euphoric
Alcohol increases the release of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate emotions, as well as endorphins, which are natural substances in the body that can spark feelings of relaxation and euphoria. This is why calm and happy feelings can settle in as intoxication rises.
Further, alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center, which instills the feeling of pleasure people can get from drinking alcohol.
4. The effects of “inhibitory” GABA increase — slurred speech
Neurotransmitters are either “excitatory,” which means they stimulate the brain’s electrical activity, or they’re “inhibitory,” which does the opposite. When consuming alcohol, the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA increases, reports HowStuffWorks Science, which can cause the sluggish movements and slurred speech that is often observed among drunk people.
5. The liver breaks down alcohol and the process generates harmful toxins
The liver stores energy and nutrients, and it also rids your body of substances that can be harmful. Therefore, most of the alcohol that a person consumes is broken down in the liver, but NIAAA reports that the process of breaking down alcohol generates toxins even more harmful than alcohol itself. These byproducts can damage the liver cells and weaken the body’s natural defenses, eventually disrupting the body’s metabolism and impairing the function of other organs.
6. Your immune system can be compromised
Chronic drinking is known to have damaging effects on the body’s immune system, but NIAAA reports that even binge-drinking on a single occasion can compromise your immune system. Cytokines are cell-signaling molecules that help out with cell-to-cell communication in immune responses, and drinking to intoxication can slow the body’s ability to produce them. Research has shown that slower cytokine production can reduce the body’s ability to fight off infections for up to 24 hours after getting drunk.
7. You’ll need to pee — a lot
Many people refer to it as “breaking the seal” — once you take that first trip to the restroom after a couple drinks, it’s like a switch goes off that sends you back to the bathroom again and again.
This happens because your liver is working to get the alcohol out of your body, and Stephen Braun, the author of Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, explains to IFLScience that alcohol blocks an antidiuretic hormone called vasopressin. Normally, vasopressin keeps the kidneys from excreting too much fluid, but as it’s blocked by alcohol, the body begins to excrete more fluid than it takes in from the alcoholic drinks.
“Your body responds to alcohol as if you’ve taken a very nasty poison and it’s geared to get rid of it,” Braun explains, and says the excessive peeing leaves you dehydrated, often leading to those nasty hangovers the next morning.
8. Contrary to popular belief, sexual responses go down
“After that third or fourth glass of wine, pretty much everything is going to go downhill. From a purely physiological standpoint, alcohol is just bad for sex,” Braun says.
Alcohol makes it more difficult to get an erection and orgasms are harder to achieve. Not to mention, alcohol can land you in bed with someone you wouldn’t have been attracted to sober.
“Under the influence of alcohol, you may find yourself becoming much more attracted to someone then you would if you were sober,” Braun explains. “That has to do with putting a break on your frontal lobe and loosening up all the emotional centers of the brain.”
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