How Does Alcohol Make You Drunk?

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Recently, psychologist Dr. Judith Grisel posted an engaging TED-Ed video that illustrates how alcohol makes you drunk.1 The film shows how alcohol travels through the body, and the effects. Many people who drink are likely unaware of exactly what happens to that martini.

Directed by animator Anton Bogaty, the film is narrated with a lovely British lilt by Bethany Cutmore-Scott. Its playful delivery echoes 1960s cartoons and strikes just the right tone.

In this article, we’ll explore that process of where alcohol goes, and how it makes people intoxicated. We’ll delve a little into the chemistry and biology. (Don’t worry, we promise not to get too technical.)

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What Is Ethanol?

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Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

Made from carbon, ethanol is the substance that makes alcohol, well, alcohol. It’s a rather simple molecule, but has effects that are more complicated. The simple structure means ethanol can lodge in places that more complex, “clunkier” molecules cannot.

Ethanol can affect any organs, but the liver and brain are prime targets.

It Starts in the Stomach

When ethanol enters the stomach, its progress depends on the amount of food present. More food affects its ability to get into the bloodstream. And if there is no food, the ethanol travels quickly into the small intestine. From there it travels to other parts of the body.

This is the reason people often feel less intoxicated when they eat while they’re drinking. With food, the pyloric sphincter (the muscle between the stomach and the small intestine) closes. When that happens, less alcohol travels through—roughly 25% of the amount that would enter otherwise.

And on to Other Organs

From the small intestine, ethanol molecules then travel through the bloodstream to other organs. First stop: the liver, which uses an enzyme to transform ethanol into acetaldehyde.2 A second enzyme turns this into acetate. The liver tries to prevent too much ethanol from reaching the brain.

In the brain, ethanol produces euphoric effects in small doses.3 This is the result that results in “feeling drunk.” Alcohol also stimulates brain neurons, which produce dopamine, the source of alcohol’s pleasurable effects. It also affects the nucleus accumbens, in the front of the brain. This causes endorphins to be released—another source of pleasure.

But at higher doses, the result is a sedative effect, or in worst cases, death.

infographic describing how alcohol makes you drunk

Why People React Differently To This Process

Many factors affect how people react to alcohol’s journey through the body. Men and women respond differently, and weight plays a factor. How often people drink, and how much, are important. Other factors include mood, hormones, and sleep.4 And genetic differences in the liver affect blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Some people are more prone than others to develop AUD (alcohol use disorder).

Some people with lower levels of dopamine and endorphins are more sensitive to alcohol’s effects, and at higher risk. Still others respond with to alcohol with sleepiness, and are less prone to develop alcohol use disorder. But heavy drinkers may alter their brain chemistry. Eventually they experience less pleasure from drinking.

A Little More on Dr. Grisel

A professor of psychology at Bucknell University, Dr. Grisel is dedicated to the science of addiction. Her book, Never Enough, the Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction (2019), was a New York Times best-seller.

Her faculty page notes, “Individuals with higher inherited endorphin levels appear to be less prone to alcoholism. Those born with lower levels may find alcohol especially pleasurable since this drug increases endorphin levels. For them, alcohol provides a greater rush. But that can lead to addiction.”

What This Might Mean For You

At Ria Health, scientific knowledge is the basis of our innovative method to help people reduce alcohol. Yes, individual motivation to change is important. Yes, counseling is crucial, too. But addiction is rooted in biology and chemistry.
If you’d like to cut down on alcohol (and help out your liver in the process), give us a call at (877) 717-6922, or get in touch with our team today.


Written By:
Bruce Hodges
New York-based writer, editor, and fundraising consultant with over three decades of experience.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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