There is no recreational drug more widely celebrated than alcohol. And many people enjoy it—it helps us become happier, less wound up, friendlier, and before long we’re drinking another and another. Alcohol does this by performing a number of things inside of your system.
When you take your first gulp of beer or shot of vodka, the ethanol travels down to your small intestine and stomach, where it slips into the bloodstream. While some ethanol gives you energy through the liver, the rest of it starts messing with your brain.
In the brain, the ethanol messes around with your neurotransmitters, or the tiny chemical signals that act as the control board for the brain. Here are just a few of the effects that can happen to you:
Alcohol has a way to make the pain go away. Not just emotionally, but physically away. It does this by muffling your sensory neurons, preventing them from sending pain signals to your brain. However, this doesn’t happen to everybody who drinks.
Reversing Your Core Temperature
You may feel that drinking a couple of beers makes you feel incredibly warm, but the truth is you’re actually more at risk of hypothermia when you have alcohol in your system.
Why? Your brain has a part called the hypothalamus, which performs a number of functions, including the regulation of your normal body temperature. Whenever you start to feel cold on the outside, it’s your hypothalamus that’s in charge of redirecting your blood from your skin to your organs, thus keeping your core temperature safe. This is why your skin will start to pale when you feel cold.
Alcohol disrupts your hypothalamus, meaning that this normal process can’t occur. Instead, alcohol reverses it, sending more blood to the skin, making you feel warmer than usual and leaving your organs exposed to the cold.
Relaxing Your Behavior
GABA and glutamate are two of the most crucial neurotransmitters in the brain. GABA is in charge of inhibiting electrical activity in the brain while glutamate stimulates it. When alcohol is introduced into your system, it disturbs this balance of glutamate and GABA, as it cancels out your usual glutamate while enhancing your GABA. This results in alcohol being a depressant, forcing you to let go of your usual anxieties and restraints and become more relaxed and friendly.
Making You Want More
The interesting thing about alcohol is that while it acts as a depressant in some ways, in other ways it also stimulates your brain to want more. It does this by upping your brain’s production of dopamine. Dopamine is your “feel good” chemical, which acts as a reward and motivator in your brain; it’s the chemical that is released when you eat good food, have great sex, or play an exciting video game. As alcohol triggers the release of dopamine in your brain, it makes you want to drink more, which is why it can become addicting.
More Sleep, Less Quality
Alcohol can make it both easier to sleep and harder to sleep. How so? Since alcohol has sedative effects as a depressant, it makes it easier for you to shut your eyes and pass out (as some alcoholics unwillingly do). The problem, however, is that your sleep will never be as good as it would have been during an alcohol-free night.
This is because alcohol interferes with the important phases during REM sleep. With a night of disturbed REM sleep, you will not wake up feeling as relaxed or as fresh. You will also not be able to store memories from the night before, as undisturbed REM sleep is crucial towards memory formation. This is why many people do not remember “the night before”.
Sex: Up and Down
Sex can be a mixed bag when it comes to alcohol. For some people, alcohol can make the experience better; for others, it can dampen it completely. Generally, women on alcohol experience a decrease in pleasure but a rise in sexual arousal. For men, both areas experience a reduction.
There is a study, however, that confirms the common idea that people are more willing to sleep around when they find themselves intoxicated, as alcohol makes you believe that people are more attractive than they actually are. It should be noted that this was a small study with a questionable sample.
Alcohol: On Drinking Safely
The effects listed above are there to provide a general idea of what alcohol can do to your body. The truth, however, is that all of these effects can change from one person to another, with smaller factors like the time of your last meal, your weight, and your genetics all playing a role in how alcohol affects you, and to what extent.
Either way, one thing’s for certain: Consistently overdrinking can be very damaging to your brain, heart, and body, increasing your risk of cancer. Over one out of every 20 deaths worldwide is related to drinking alcohol. Stay safe on your nights at the bar.