For many people across the world, alcohol is the preferred choice of relaxing and having a good time. It works wonders and yes, sometimes it isn’t the best feeling to wake up to. But have you ever wondered exactly how a mere liquid can make your mind take a complete 180 degree turn and lose all inhibitions? The trick lies in what parts of the brain it affects and how it reflects.
Most people react differently to alcohol. There are people who get giggly and laugh at almost anything, others get upset easily and either yell at random people/objects or cry in a corner, and many others dance like there’s no tomorrow.
This post will not be about how individuals react to alcohol, but it will explain how alcohol enters your body, the wires it scrambles in your brain, and how it generally affects the common man.
Whether it is beer, whiskey, vodka, wine, or any other drink of your choice, when we refer to alcoholic drinks, what we actually mean is ethanol. Alcohol is the chemical term to describe any compound with an alcohol group, an –OH attached to a carbon atom. An alcoholic beverage is typically manufactured by mashing carbohydrate-rich fruit, grain, and vegetable material, then fermenting the mash for a regulated time.
The liver starts working immediately to neutralize the residual toxic effects of alcohol. On an average, the liver metabolizes (breaks down) alcohol at a rate of 14 grams per hour since a ‘standard’ drink contains 12 grams of pure alcohol. That means the average person can metabolize about one standard drink per hour. However, some people’s livers metabolize alcohol more slowly.
The effects of alcohol vary according to the individual’s sex, body size, and the amount of body fat, the amount of alcohol consumed, the situation, and the amount of food in the stomach. A light person with a fast metabolism is expected to feel the effects of alcohol faster than a heavier person with a slower metabolism. Likewise, the effects of remaining alcohol wear off faster for people with lighter body weight than it does for heavy people. This happens because after being absorbed by the blood, the alcohol is distributed throughout the tissues, due to which a person with lesser body weight gets inebriated sooner than a hefty person. The metabolism comes to play when the tissues break down the alcohol supplied to them, therefore a person with a faster metabolism would burn the alcohol quicker than a person with a slower metabolism. Due to these proven statistics, it is safe to conclude that usually women tend to get tipsy faster than men, but also recover from wild nights quicker. Therefore, don’t feel let down if your male friends take their own sweet time to join you up there, they won’t be laughing about it next morning!
When you drink alcohol, roughly 20% of it is absorbed by your stomach into your bloodstream. The remaining 80% is taken up by your small intestine. This successfully explains why eating before you drink can slow down the effects of alcohol. If your stomach is full of food, it’s harder for the alcohol to end up by the stomach walls where it can be absorbed in a larger quantity when the stomach is empty. This is also why drinking on an empty stomach can have such a speedy effect, 20% of the alcohol goes straight into your bloodstream, and gets to work instantly. 10% percent of the alcohol consumed is eliminated through sweat, breath, and urine soon after absorption.
Now, coming to the most important part of this topic – How exactly does alcohol affect your brain? Well, in short, it tries and succeeds to slow your brain down. Nerve cells in your brain and throughout the body pass messages among themselves via action potentials. However, action potentials can’t just jump from one nerve cell to another, when they reach the end of a nerve cell they need a bridge to cross onto the next nerve. These bridges are called neurotransmitters. When alcohol is in your brain, it sneakily pretends to be a postman and binds to the receptors that usually receive messages from neurotransmitters. Alcohol basically attaches itself to a receptor that slows things down and simply encourages it to slow things down even further.
The actual effects of alcohol largely depend on which part of the brain is being slowed down, and of course, the more alcohol you have in your blood, the more areas of the brain it can get to. It typically starts in the cerebral cortex, which is the area of your brain that is primarily responsible for cognitive thinking, behaviour, and voluntary muscle movements.
Another area of alcohol’s sneak attack is the limbic system, where it affects your ability to control your emotions. This is possibly why alcohol often feels like it magnifies any emotion you were feeling before you started drinking, whether that was happy, angry or really sad.
Alcohol also affects the cerebellum, the part of your brain that coordinates muscle movement. The cerebellum is the headquarters of movements; it organises messages to and from all your muscles, so that they can perform as one, in mind-blowing harmony, allowing you to complete tricky motor tasks like touching your nose, or walking in a straight line. More the alcohol depresses the activity in this area, the less coordinated you become until eventually you cannot coordinate enough to even stand up and finally end up flat on the floor.
So that’s basically how alcohol affects your body – It heads to your brain, mimics your molecular postmen, and in doing so, hinders your ability to do lots of things you can normally do perfectly well.