Alcohol: The Basics

Why alcohol affects us the way it does, and how to know if you have a problem.

Table of Contents

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What Is Alcohol?

Ethanol, commonly referred to as alcohol, is a carbon-based molecule found in fermented beverages, known for its intoxicating effects.(1) These include a sense of relaxation, reduced inhibitions, impaired coordination, and, for some, a sense of euphoria. Alcohol has been produced and consumed by human beings for thousands of years, and is among the most common psychoactive substances in the world.

While no amount of alcohol is 100 percent safe, there is a big difference between light and heavy consumption.

Many people are able to drink moderate amounts of alcohol without experiencing significant problems. Heavy alcohol use, on the other hand, can result in physical injury, poor decision-making, numerous chronic illnesses, and even fatal overdose.(2)

Alcohol is also an addictive substance. Millions of people across the United States struggle with alcohol addiction, and millions more fall into a gray area—meaning they are drinking more than they would like. At Ria Health, our mission is to help people regain control over their alcohol use, and establish a healthier relationship with this common substance.

Learn more about how our program works

infographic describing how alcohol makes you drunk
infographic describing how alcohol makes you drunk

Why Does Alcohol Make You Drunk?

Alcohol intoxicates you because of its impact on the central nervous system, and several body chemicals linked to pleasure and relaxation.

Here’s how it works:

  • When you drink alcohol, it enters your bloodstream and eventually reaches your brain.
  • Once there, the molecule ethanol slows your nervous system by increasing the effects of the relaxing brain chemical GABA,(3) while limiting the impact of the more stimulating chemical, glutamate.(4)
  • Alcohol also causes the release of endorphins in your body. This creates a soothing, euphoric effect, and a sense of pleasure and well-being.(5)
  • Finally, drinking alcohol triggers the release of dopamine in your brain’s reward system.(6) This also creates a feeling of pleasure and encourages you to drink more.

As your liver processes the alcohol out of your blood, these enjoyable effects tend to fade, and you may begin to experience the opposite impact. This may include a hangover or withdrawal symptoms.

As a whole, alcohol can have a powerful effect on how you feel. Many people find themselves wanting to drink again to experience the same positive sensations.

Read more: How Does Alcohol Make You Drunk?

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How Does Alcohol Affect Your Health?

The impact of alcohol on your health depends on how much you drink, and your overall health to begin with.

  • Alcohol places stress on a number of vital organs,(7) and can enter and affect nearly every part of your body.
  • It can also worsen underlying mental health conditions, or create mental health problems where there were none before.(8)
  • Heavy drinking can lead to risky behavior and injuries that might not happen otherwise, further impacting your health.(9)

Most of the severe impacts of alcohol on health are tied to excessive alcohol consumption. But even moderate alcohol use can have negative effects. This is why, even if you aren’t addicted, it is sometimes a good idea to cut out alcohol.

Learn more about Alcohol and Your Health

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What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) occurs when someone has trouble controlling their use of alcohol, despite negative consequences. AUD ranges from mild to severe,(10) and doesn’t have to mean you are an “alcoholic.” For example:

  • One person might not drink much during the week, but struggle to control their binge drinking on the weekend, often ending up in risky situations.
  • Someone else might drink on a nightly basis to deal with work stress, and begin noticing they have cravings when they skip a night.
  • Another person might drink all day, every day, go to great lengths to hide it, and still find that it undermines their ability to go about their life.

Any of these people might have an alcohol use disorder.

AUD is not a cause for shame, or a sign of weakness. Alcohol is an addictive substance that affects everyone differently, and many people develop problems with it at some point in their lives.

At Ria, we recognize AUD as a common, treatable chronic illness caused by changes to a person’s brain chemistry. We believe that if you’re struggling with this ailment, you deserve the same medical attention as a person with any other health problem, without stigma or shame.

Read more: What Is Alcohol Use Disorder

Do I have AUD?

How to Stop Drinking Alcohol

Whether you’d like to improve your overall health, or feel you’ve become dependent on alcohol, there are many reasons to give up drinking—and many ways to do it.

If you’re not yet struggling with addiction, it may be possible to simply set daily drink limits or weekly goals. Keeping a journal to track your drinks, and finding alternative activities are both helpful strategies.

Many people who have become dependent on alcohol benefit from attending support groups, using drink-tracking apps, or even joining rehab programs to help them quit drinking.

Learn more about How To Stop Drinking

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woman sitting using smartphone

However, many also find that the most common forms of support aren’t a good fit. Often, getting help for your drinking is expensive, requires you to pause or disrupt your daily life, creates shame and stigma, or requires you to subscribe to beliefs or labels you may not agree with.

That’s where Ria Health comes in.

Our goal is to normalize getting help for problem drinking, so that more people can get the support they need.

We offer a comprehensive approach that doesn’t require you to put your life on hold, identify as an alcoholic, or even quit completely if you don’t want to. We use only evidence-based methods, including:

Best of all, the whole program happens online, on your schedule, through our smartphone app.

Ready to make a change?

Not sure if you need help for your alcohol use?
Problem drinking exists on a spectrum, and it can be hard to know when your relationship with alcohol has become unhealthy. Take our quiz to find out where you stand.
Is My Drinking Normal?

Take our short alcohol quiz to learn where you fall on the drinking spectrum and if you might benefit from quitting or cutting back on alcohol.