What Really Happens Inside You When You Drink Alcohol - Healthroid

What Really Happens Inside You When You Drink Alcohol

Priyank Pandey
Written by Priyank Pandey on May 29, 2023

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that approximately 2.3 billion individuals, accounting for roughly 34% of the global population aged 15 and above, are actively engaged in drinking alcohol.

The WHO also reports that the harmful use of alcohol is responsible for 3 million deaths each year, or 5.3% of all deaths worldwide. The harmful use of alcohol is defined as any pattern of drinking that is likely to lead to health problems, such as alcohol dependence, injuries, and violence.

The WHO believes that these numbers of deaths due to the harmful use of alcohol can be reduced if countries implement a comprehensive set of interventions, such as:

  • Raising the price of alcohol.
  • Limiting the availability of alcohol.
  • Providing treatment for alcohol dependence.
  • Promoting responsible drinking.

When considering the initial three choices, they primarily rest within the purview of various governments across different countries. However, the fourth option, namely “promoting responsible drinking,” is an alternative that each one of us can personally embrace.

Witnessing numerous instances of reckless drinking compelled me to embark on a mission of research and infographic creation. My goal was to empower individuals with knowledge about the true effects of alcohol on the body, enabling them to make well-informed choices regarding consumption—whether to abstain entirely or regulate their intake responsibly.

Which is as follows:

1 minute after you drink alcohol…

When you take your first sip of alcohol, it travels down your throat by the esophagus – a hollow tube that serves as a bridge from the mouth to the stomach – and makes its way through to your stomach.

After entering the stomach, alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, primarily through the small intestine. [1]

However, if you have consumed food recently before drinking, it may delay alcohol absorption as a portion of the alcohol can be absorbed by the food in the stomach. [2] Additionally, after eating, the pyloric sphincter – which works as an important valve between your stomach and small intestine – usually closes. [3] This closure could impede the entry of alcohol into your bloodstream causing slowing down the rate of alcohol absorption into the bloodstream.

However, since your stomach and intestines are unable to metabolize alcohol, sooner or later it will still eventually enter your bloodstream.

3 minutes after you drink alcohol…

Once alcohol enters your bloodstream, it gradually distributes freely throughout the water in your body.

Although alcohol diffuses at a slow pace in general, but it reaches quicker to organs with high blood supply like the liver and brain, before entering the rest of your body through the bloodstream. [4]

Your liver is the first organ that is impacted by alcohol as it receives blood directly from the stomach and small intestine via the portal vein. [5]

Your liver has now begun working to start processing the alcohol you are consuming.

Here, enzymes undertake a two-step process to metabolize the alcohol molecule. Initially, the enzyme ADH converts alcohol into a toxic substance called acetaldehyde, followed by the enzyme ALDH, which converts the toxic acetaldehyde into a non-toxic substance known as acetate. [6]

After the conversion of acetaldehyde to acetate, the non-toxic acetate is broken down into water and carbon dioxide, which can be easily eliminated from the body. [7]

However, at this point, the initial processing of alcohol by the liver has just begun and it will be occurring very slowly. And, during this initial processing stage, you may not yet feel the typical effects of alcohol consumption.

Nevertheless, interesting changes will start happening to your body in the upcoming minutes.

5 minutes after you drink alcohol…

As you slowly keep sipping your alcoholic drink, your blood concentration gradually increases. This is when your brain begins to feel the effects of alcohol.

If you’re drinking a beverage that contains 20 to 30 percent alcohol, your blood alcohol concentration will slowly increase at a slightly faster rate compared to drinks with a higher alcohol percentage. Moreover, if you’re mixing your alcoholic drinks with carbonated beverages like soda, it will lead to even higher blood concentrations. [8]

At this point, you’re still relatively sober, but your consumption of alcohol is steadily increasing your blood alcohol concentration and moving you closer toward the state of drunkenness.

10 minutes after you drink alcohol…

As you finish your first glass of alcohol and prepare for the second, you have now started to notice the effects of the alcohol present in your body.

Your skin has taken on a reddish hue, appears flushed, and you have started feeling warmer. While this may resemble blushing or an allergic reaction, there is no need to worry. It is simply a natural response of your body to the alcohol.

This occurs because alcohol acts as a vasodilator, causing the blood vessels beneath your skin to relax and widen. As a result, blood flow to the surface of your body increases rapidly, leading to a sensation of warmth. [9]

But this sudden sensation of warmth is short-lived because the widening of blood vessels causes a brief drop in your blood pressure. [10] This, in turn, causes the redirection of blood away from your body’s core, resulting in a drop in your internal temperature.

Compared to men, women tend to feel the effects of alcohol more quickly because they have less body water to dilute it, resulting in higher blood alcohol concentrations. So, if a man and a woman of similar weight and size consume the same amount of alcohol, the woman will feel the effects first. [11]

15 minutes after you drink alcohol…

Now you start to feel relaxed and calm.

Now alcohol has started taking its toll on your body including your brain’s chemistry.

Specifically, it has started to boost the activity of the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, known as GABA, while decreasing the function of the primary excitatory neurotransmitter, known as glutamate. [12]

As a result, the communication between your neurons starts to slow down significantly, which leads to feelings of relaxation and calmness at moderate levels of alcohol consumption.

Additionally, alcohol is also causing changes to your hormones. It triggers the release of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, leading to an increase in their levels within your body. [13]

When your brain releases dopamine, you start to feel a sense of satisfaction and reward. [14] Serotonin, on the other hand, helps promote feelings of confidence and relaxation within you. [15] Additionally, endorphins elicit sensations of euphoria throughout your body. [16]

As a result of experiencing these emotions, you now start to feel inclined to continue drinking alcohol which triggers such reactions.

As you continue to drink alcohol, it has a temporary effect on certain parts of your nervous system by suppressing them. [17] This means that the normal functioning of these parts is temporarily slowed down or inhibited. And as a result, your speech begins to slur, your coordination starts to decrease, and your vision becomes impaired.

At this time of moment, you start feeling drunk and start acting differently than usual- you start behaving in ways that you might not typically do while sober.

Now, you feel more confident and comfortable in socializing with strangers. However, this is just the beginning of the potential consequences.

20 minutes after you drink alcohol…

Right now, the alcohol you’re consuming is still being processed in your liver. However, so far, your liver has only been able to break down 16 to 17 percent of the alcohol content of your first drink.

As you continue to consume alcohol, your behavior is starting to align with your mood before drinking and according to your personality. For example, increased aggression, heightened amicability, or other changes depending on the individual. This is because alcohol can affect our inhibitions and alter our emotions. [18]

The smell of alcohol can now be detected on your breath as it diffuses out of your bloodstream and passes through the walls of your lungs. This means that anyone around you may be able to perceive the odor.

Your body is expelling alcohol in a similar way that your body releases carbon dioxide. [19]

Even though it may seem like chewing gum or consuming mints can effectively conceal the odor of alcohol on your breath from others, it is important to keep in mind that these tactics are ineffective when it comes to fooling a breathalyzer test. The reason is, the concentration of alcohol in your bloodstream diffuses into your breath and can be detected by the sensitive equipment used for testing.

30 minutes after you drink alcohol…

Now, you feel the need to use the restroom, but despite your attempts to resist it, you cannot ignore the urge to go to pee.

When you drink alcohol, it has a diuretic effect on your body which means it increases urine production and causes you to urinate more frequently. This happens because alcohol suppresses the production of a hormone called antidiuretic hormone (ADH), which helps your kidneys reabsorb water. So, when ADH is suppressed, your kidneys produce more urine and your body loses more water. [20]

And, as you urinate frequently, your body is losing an increasing amount of fluids, putting you at risk for dehydration and loss of electrolytes. Your body is now struggling to hold onto the necessary water it needs to maintain cellular functions. [21]

If you don’t hydrate properly now, the following day you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, headache, muscle aches, nausea, stomach pain, or dizziness for sure.

In this situation, if you want to replenish your body’s fluids, your best option is to drink plenty of water. Although it might cause you to need the restroom more often, increasing your water intake can help you to maintain your body’s optimal fluid levels and prevent dehydration.

You may be feeling good at the moment, but behind the scenes, alcohol is actually disrupting your brain’s functions by damaging dendrites – the connection points at the end of neurons. [22]

Fortunately, with prolonged abstinence, the damage that alcohol causes to your brain’s dendrites can be almost completely reversible. However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t give you a free pass to ignore the potential harm alcohol can cause.

45 minutes after you drink alcohol…

At this point, people’s individual differences can make them more or less drunk. This means that even if two people drink the same amount, they may react differently based on factors like gender, body shape, metabolism, and tolerance. [23]

But, this doesn’t mean you won’t become drunk.

Currently, your brain’s occipital lobe, temporal lobe, and frontal lobe are currently experiencing significant disruptions, leading to impaired decision-making and blurred vision. [24]

At such a time, if you are considering doing something that requires quick decision-making, such as driving a car, it is best to avoid it. These disruptions can cause impaired judgment and blurred vision, putting yourself and others at risk of harm.

Forget about driving, now you aren’t able to even walk properly- you’re stumbling and losing your balance. Well, that is happening because the cerebellum in your brain, which controls coordination, is not working properly. [25]

60 minutes after you drink alcohol…

If you’ve been drinking alcohol, your blood alcohol levels are probably quite high and you might begin to feel nauseous and it can make you vomit. This means that your liver is working extra hard to break down the toxic alcohol and remove it from your system.

Behind the scenes, some of your liver cells are experiencing damage and are at risk of dying. While the liver is capable of creating new cells, prolonged alcohol misuse can eventually lead to irreversible damage. [26]

It is also causing certain parts of your brain to have trouble working properly. In some cases, this can even cause you to blackout or have trouble remembering things temporarily.

Not only this, there is also a risk of suffocation and internal injuries.

If you have been consuming alcohol continuously without taking a break, you are putting your body at risk of serious harm.

In fact, the damage can be severe enough that it could lead to coma. [27]

This is because your nervous system may shut down and cause problems with your breathing and circulation.

Again, the duration it takes to reach various levels of intoxication depends on factors such as an individual’s body weight, body fat percentage, gender, amount of alcohol consumed, the speed of drinking, and whether or not they have eaten.

3 hours after you drink alcohol…

At last, you have returned home utterly drained, both physically and mentally.

You can barely keep your eyes open and all you want to do is crawl into bed and drift off to sleep. But as soon as you step through the door, your family members greet you with offers of food and refreshments.

Although they mean well, the thought of eating is the last thing on your mind- all you can think about is getting some much-needed rest. So despite their best efforts, you kindly decline their offers and make a beeline for your bedroom to finally relax.

You’re now lying in bed, but sadly, sleep eludes you. You’re experiencing a strange phenomenon where the objects in front of you appear to be moving, intensifying your feelings of nausea. [28]

Now that you are utterly exhausted, you find yourself succumbing to fragmented sleep, gradually drifting off in disjointed moments.

You may believe that alcohol helps you fall asleep quicker, but it’s important to note that while under the influence, your sleep is not natural, it’s more sedated, similar to anesthesia.

Essentially, while it may feel like alcohol is helping you drift off to sleep, it actually interferes with the natural sleep cycle and can lead to poor-quality rest. So even if you do manage to fall asleep faster, chances are you won’t feel fully rested in the morning.

Alcohol actually suppresses your REM sleep. This stage of sleep is important to you because it’s when most dreaming occurs and your body undergoes significant repairs, while the brain processes short-term memory into long-term memory. [29]

Even if you happen to dream while under the influence of alcohol, the nature and content of your dreams may be strange and disconnected. This may be due to potential damage to brain cells or disruptions within neural pathways.

Not only this, the diuretic property of alcohol will make it more difficult for you to sleep. It will increase your urine output and potentially cause you to frequent bathroom trips throughout the night.

Despite your best efforts, obtaining a good and proper night’s sleep will be difficult for you to achieve.

10 hours after you drink alcohol…

Now it’s time for you to get up because you have to go to work in the next few hours. Despite longing for more sleep, you drag yourself out of bed feeling exhausted after a restless night.

You’re currently dealing with low blood sugar levels, dehydration, and loss of electrolytes, which is causing intense headaches. In hindsight, you regret drinking too much. [30]

Indeed, while you were indulging in drinks, you experienced a sense of relaxation. However, the situation has taken a complete turn. Presently, you’re finding yourself overwhelmed with stress and anxiety.

The reason behind your current state is the excessive stress your body has endured in the past few hours. Consequently, there has been a significant surge in the levels of cortisol within your body. [31]

As you now try to recall the events leading up to falling asleep, you realize that your memory is hazy. Although alcohol doesn’t erase memories completely, it can make it difficult to retrieve them. [32]

As you were lost in thought, an intense rumble in your stomach caught you by surprise and compelled you to rush towards the bathroom. And as soon as you reach there, your body was suddenly overwhelmed by a severe bout of diarrhea.

This is because excessive alcohol intake has inflamed your stomach lining by increasing the acid levels. Additionally, the prolonged suppression of the antidiuretic hormone in your body has led to an accumulation of liquid in the intestines. As a consequence, you’re now experiencing severe diarrhea. [33]

This further increases your dehydration and loss of electrolytes.

You are now in urgent need of replenishing the fluid levels in your body to combat the effects of dehydration. To address this, you can consume clear fluids like water, clear broths, frozen water, electrolyte drinks, or ice pops which can help replenish the lost fluid and electrolytes in your body.

After going through so much, you make it to work, but you still feel drained and exhausted.

The best thing to help you now is a good night’s sleep. Your body needs the rest to recover from the stress it has endured. [34]

Sound like you shouldn’t drink at all. Isn’t it?

But wait!

What If You Do This Too Often?

If you drink alcohol in moderation, it is unlikely that your body will develop any harmful health conditions.

Nevertheless, excessive drinking habits such as consuming multiple drinks daily or bingeing on weekends have been associated with various harmful health complications.

The consumption of alcohol in large quantities can significantly heighten the risk for specific types of cancer. While liver and colon cancers are the most widely recognized, alcohol ingestion has also been linked to an increased likelihood of developing other forms of cancer. [35]

Acetaldehyde is classified as a Group B2 carcinogen- a substance with the potential to cause cancer. [36]

Yes, acetaldehyde is the same substance that your liver produces during breaking down of alcohol.

To effectively eliminate hazardous molecules like acetaldehyde from your system, it is essential to allow your body enough time to carry out its natural detoxification functions. Consuming larger amounts of alcohol can significantly prolong this process, making it more difficult for your body to remove these toxins.

In addition, excessive alcohol consumption has been associated with heightened chances of developing hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. [37]

In summary, alcohol can be described as a substance that has adverse physiological effects, is unappetizing in nature, poses significant dangers, and has the potential for strong addictive tendencies.

Let me clarify that I don’t intend to vilify alcohol. Enjoying an occasional glass of wine, beer, or cocktail is not necessarily detrimental to your health. I want to emphasize that the message here is not to condemn moderate alcohol consumption. However, it is important to recognize that chronic and excessive alcohol intake can indeed have harmful effects on your well-being.

If you desire to maintain your ability to remember things, be aware of your surroundings, maintain coordination, and enjoy a restful night’s sleep, it is recommended that you completely avoid consuming alcohol in excess. By doing so, you can ensure optimal cognitive function, sensory perception, physical control, and quality of sleep.


Infographic:

What Reallt Happens Inside You When You Drink Alcohol

References:

[3]. Getting to Know the Pyloric Sphincter (Healthline)

[4]. What happens when you drink alcohol (nidirect)

[7]. Ethanol Metabolism (Wikipedia)

[8] Effects of Artificial Sweeteners on Breath Alcohol Concentrations in Male and Female Social Drinkers (Amy L. Stamates, Sarah F. Maloney, and Cecile A. Marczinski)

[9]. Vascular Effects of Alcoholic Beverages (AHA Journals)

[11]. Are Women More Vulnerable to Alcohol’s Effects? (NIAAA)

[12]. Neurotransmitters in alcoholism (Niladri Banerjee)

[13]. The impact of alcohol on the brain (Psych Scene Hub)

[14]. Dopamine: The Pathway to Pleasure (Harvard Medical School)

[16]. Endorphins (Healthline)

[17]. Alcoholism and its effects on the central nervous system (Sukhes Mukherjee)

[18]. One trait has huge impact on whether alcohol makes you aggressive (Science Daily)

[20]. Alcohol’s Impact on Kidney Function (Murray Epstein)

[21]. Does Alcohol Dehydrate You? (Healthline)

[24]. Alcoholism and the Brain (Marlene Oscar–Berman, Ph.D., and Ksenija Marinkovic, Ph.D.)

[25]. Effects of ethanol on the cerebellum (Jia Luo)

[28]. What is the link between vertigo and alcohol (Medicalnewstoday)

[29]. Alcohol and Sleep (Sleep Foundation)

[30]. Alcohol and hypoglycemia (Medicalnewstoday)

[31]. Alcohol and cortisol (Wikipedia)

[32]. Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain (Aaron M. White, Ph.D.)

[33]. How Does Alcohol Affect Your Poop? (WebMD)

[34]. Sleep Is the Best Way to Recover from Stress (Stress.org)

[37]. Alcohol Use and Your Health (CDC)

Published on May 29, 2023 and Last Updated on December 9, 2023 by: Priyank Pandey

Priyank Pandey
Written by Priyank Pandey on May 29, 2023

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