Whether you drink frequently or only get drunk on occasion, you might be wondering why alcohol works the way it does. Why do people get drunk when they consume alcohol, and how exactly does it impact your body and brain? Why does alcohol seem to affect people differently? What is the science behind this substance that is seemingly everywhere around us?
Below, we’ll answer the question, “why does alcohol make you drunk?”—including what substance in alcohol is responsible for its effects, what happens as it moves through your body, why different people react differently to it, and whether you can ever get drunk safely.
What In Alcohol Makes You Drunk?
The Active Ingredient: Ethanol
You’ve probably experienced feeling tipsy from a few too many drinks before, but have you ever wondered, “what in alcohol makes you drunk?” The answer is a substance called ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol.
Ethanol is made from carbon. It’s a rather simple molecule, but its effects are more complicated. Its simple structure allows ethanol to lodge in places that more complex, “clunkier” molecules cannot. Ethanol can affect many organs, but the liver and brain are prime targets.
Once it arrives in the brain, the molecule ethanol slows your nervous system by increasing the effects of the relaxing brain chemical GABA,1 while limiting the impact of the more stimulating chemical glutamate.
This disruption in brain chemicals can have a powerful effect on how you feel. Many people find themselves wanting to drink again or consume a larger amount to experience the same positive sensations.
Schedule a private call with a Ria Health team member and we can help you get started.
How Alcohol Moves Through Your Body
As alcohol makes its way through your system, it comes into contact with nearly every part of your body. From the moment you swallow that first shot of whiskey, here are the nuts and bolts of how alcohol makes you drunk. (A recent TED-Ed video by psychologist Dr. Judith Grisel also provides an interesting, almost whimsical summary of the process).2
The Stomach and Intestines
Alcohol’s journey through the body begins in the stomach. Once ethanol arrives there, its progress depends on the amount of food present. Larger quantities of food affect its ability to enter the bloodstream.
In the absence of food, ethanol travels quickly into the small intestine. From there it continues on to other parts of the body.
When your stomach contains food, the pyloric sphincter (the muscle between the stomach and the small intestine) closes. When this occurs, not as much alcohol can pass through—sometimes as little as 25% of what would enter otherwise. This explains why people often feel less intoxicated when they eat before drinking alcohol.
The Bloodstream and Other Organs
From the digestive tract, specifically the small intestine, ethanol molecules then travel through the bloodstream to other organs. One of the first places ethanol lands is the liver, which does most of the work when it comes to processing alcohol. There, enzymes transform ethanol into a toxic substance called acetaldehyde, and then a neutral substance called acetate.3
The liver tries to prevent too much ethanol from reaching the brain, but it can only process approximately one standard drink per hour. The remainder continues to circulate in the blood. This is the reason blood alcohol content (BAC) is used to measure how drunk someone is. The percentage of alcohol still circulating has a direct relationship to how intoxicated you are.
It’s important to keep in mind that drinking alcohol faster than your liver can process it does more than just make you drunk. Heavy drinking puts stress on the organ and it can become seriously damaged.4
Once in the brain, ethanol produces euphoric effects in small doses. This includes the release of “pleasure chemicals” like dopamine and endorphins.5 It also slows down your neural activity by increasing the effects of GABA (a nervous system depressant) and decreasing the effects of glutamate (which normally stimulates your nervous system).
At first, these symptoms feel pleasant. But if you continue drinking and your brain absorbs more alcohol, you may start to experience physical symptoms such as slurred speech, blurred vision, lack of control, slower reaction time, impaired judgment, and confusion (trouble “thinking straight”).
If you continue to consume alcohol it eventually affects your cerebellum, causing difficulty with coordination. You may have trouble walking or standing. Blackouts, stupor, slowed breathing, coma, and even death can result from large quantities of this substance.
Your brain also plays a part in hangovers. As your nervous system attempts to rebalance after a bout of heavy drinking, dopamine and serotonin levels plummet, causing one to feel anxious and restless. In addition, the lingering effects of alcohol may continue to make coordination, concentration, and decision-making difficult.
Read more: Alcohol and Your Brain
How Is Alcohol Eliminated From The Body?
After a heavy night of drinking, you may be wondering how alcohol gets eliminated from your body and how long the process takes.
After the alcohol moves through your stomach, small intestine, and bloodstream, the liver starts its cleanup. As stated earlier, it’s your liver that does most of the heavy lifting. It removes about 90% of the alcohol from your blood, with the remainder coming out through your kidneys, lungs, and skin.
On average, the human body takes about one hour to metabolize one standard-sized drink. However, some types of tests can still detect alcohol in your system after several days.
Read more: How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
Why People Have Differing Reactions To Alcohol
As you may suspect, not everyone metabolizes alcohol or gets drunk at the same rate. There are multiple factors that determine how a person experiences intoxication. Namely, biological sex (men process alcohol more quickly than women), age, weight, and some genetic factors.
Other variables play a role as well. The speed at which alcohol is consumed, how often someone drinks, how much food they’ve eaten beforehand, the presence of drugs or medication in their system, and their overall health all have an impact.
How a person feels and behaves when drunk also varies widely. You’ve likely heard terms like “happy drunk,” “angry drunk,” and so on. Depending on their personal body chemistry and underlying personality—or even how their day is going—an individual might feel euphoric and extra friendly, or aggressive and irritable. One person may hardly show any signs of intoxication, while others who drink the same amount might act wild and reckless.
Which one of these 7 drunk personality types best describes you?
How Often Is It Safe To Get Drunk?
While technically it is never safe to get drunk, every once-in-a-blue moon isn’t necessarily a big deal. However, if you find yourself drinking to intoxication frequently, you may have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). And that can lead to harmful consequences for your health and safety (and the safety of others). If you’re unsure where you stand, take our two minute alcohol use assessment.
If you already know you need support to cut back on alcohol or quit, Ria Health can help. Through our innovative telemedicine app, we provide the tools and resources you need for recovery right at your fingertips. Your customized treatment plan will include medical and coaching support—from the comfort of home, on your schedule.