It can make people act pretty strange.
And if you’ve ever seen someone who’s had too much to drink—or perhaps you were that person—you know that alcohol has some pretty major effects on the body and brain.
But how exactly does alcohol work, and why do we get drunk?
Alcohol, chemically known as ethanol, is a psychoactive substance that is the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, and spirits.
It’s actually one of the oldest recreational substances and can be made via fermentation of fruit or grain mixtures followed by distillation, chemical modification of fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, or chemical combination of hydrogen with carbon monoxide.
Now, of course, when you drink a beer you’re not drinking pure alcohol.
Instead, various drinks have different ethanol concentrations.
Beer has an average of about 4.5%, wine is about 11%, and distilled spirits like vodka or rum hover around 40%, while others, like Everclear vodka, can get as high as 95%.
Now, to the feeling good part.
After consuming an alcoholic beverage, about 20% of it gets absorbed by the stomach, and the remaining 80% is absorbed in the small intestine.
The speed of absorption depends on a couple factors.
For instance, the higher the alcohol concentration in the beverage, the faster it will be absorbed.
Also, whether someone’s stomach is full or empty can affect the absorption speed as food slows down this process.
But eating a big dinner doesn’t keep you from getting drunk. It just delays the process a bit.
After alcohol gets absorbed by the stomach and small intestine, it enters the bloodstream and dissolves in the water of the blood, allowing it to get carried throughout the body.
From there, alcohol then makes its way to the body’s tissues and eventually your brain.
Alcohol primarily acts on the brain’s nerve cells by interfering with communication between these cells.
Nerve cells communicate by sending chemical messages to each other, which are also known as neurotransmitters.
Alcohol interferes with two neurotransmitters: glutamate and GABA, which are excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, respectively.
As an excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate increases brain activity and energy levels, while GABA slows everything down.
Alcohol increases GABA production, while suppressing the excitatory effects of glutamate.
Which is why alcohol consumption typically results in slowed down thought, speech, and movements.
It generally makes you more clumsy across the board, which is why you may have struggled to put your keys in your door or take your shoes off after a long night out.
But if alcohol makes you act slow and clumsy, why does it also feel so… fun?
Well, alcohol also increases the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center, which tricks you into thinking that you feel great.
Which is how alcohol addiction can develop.
And when it comes to the debilitating hangover the next day, well, you can mostly chalk that up to alcohol’s dehydrating effect.
Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes you pee a lot.
It suppresses the pituitary gland’s release of the hormone vasopressin, which triggers the re-absorption of water back into the body.
Without that, all the liquid you’re drinking is going straight to your bladder.
This causes the body to steal water from the brain, which causes its tissues to shrink and results in that pounding headache the next morning.
And it’s not just a hangover that alcohol consumption can result in.
Alcohol has been linked to cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum, and breast.
This is because alcohol can act as an irritant and potentially damage cells.
And then there’s your liver.
Alcohol breakdown in the liver produces some pretty harmful byproducts, like acetaldehyde, which alters the function and structure of the liver and can lead to liver damage or disease.
Alcohol has also been linked to mood disorders, like depression.
It’s not clear whether depression makes people drink, or if it’s the other way around.
But for people who already have depression, alcohol typically makes their symptoms worse.
And it’s worth noting that heavy alcohol use can also make antidepressants less effective.
Meanwhile, drugs like Cannabis, LSD, and psilocybin are being trialed as treatments for depression.
And they’re certainly not as widely available—or legal—as alcohol.
So that’s definitely something to think about the next time you reach for a drink.
To subscribe to the Everything Explained channel, click here