The effects of alcohol are as predictable as night following day. We get the initial buzz, the rush of endorphins, the fun times flow, and then comes the hangover. Whatever your drink of choice—whether its a stress-relieving glass of red wine, a party-starting glass of Prosecco or a Aperol spritz at brunch—chances are high you've experienced next-day hangover. For most people, inevitably, the joyful buzz of the alcohol and the good times make way for a throbbing head, dry mouth and nausea—not such good times.
But, while we know the drill, have you ever wondered what your go-to beverage is actually doing to your body and brain while you're imbibing? Well, let’s take you on a little journey…
Alcohol Effect #1: The Initial Warm, Fuzzy Feeling
Every night of drinking starts the same: you have a drink, then get that initial warm, fuzzy feeling of calm. The stress starts to melt away and you reach for another. "Alcohol releases chemicals in the brain called endorphins," explains Seattle-based registered dietitian, Ginger Hultin, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of ChampagneNutrition. "This happens especially in the front area of the brain, which has to do with reasoning and decision-making. It's why we feel good, but also why people make poor decisions, like driving drunk or other dangerous behaviors, while under the influence."
Be Alcohol-Aware: Binge-drinking, for a typical adult, is defined as consuming five or more drinks in about 2 hours for men, or four or more drinks for women, states the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.
Alcohol Effect #2: The Confidence High
Alongside the release of endorphins, alcohol also stimulates Gaba (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a naturally-occurring chemical compound in your brain that chills you out. According to an article on The Guardian, once you are onto your third or fourth drink, you start blocking glutamate, the main excitatory transmitter in the brain. Scientist David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, tells The Guardian, "More glutamate means more anxiety," says Nutt. "Less glutamate means less anxiety... When people get very drunk, they’re even less anxious than when they’re a bit drunk." That's why when you're drunk, you will think everything is a-okay, even when the reality could be very different.
Nutritionist Gabriela Peacock adds that "alcohol lowers our inhibitions and sense of fear; for this reason, individuals can be emboldened and more confident to do things they wouldn’t normally with alcohol in their system."
Alcohol Effect #3: Coordination Chaos
We've all witnessed it or been there ourselves: drunk people slurring their words, falling over, or knocking drinks off tables. Turns out, there's a good reason why that happens. "Alcohol reduces communication between the body and the brain, making coordination of not only limbs but the many muscles and movements required for effective speech tricky," notes Peacock.
Alcohol Effect #4: Memory Loss and Blackouts
Drinking too much alcohol doesn't just affect your body's ability to function properly; it also messes with your mind. According to Peacock, "Alcohol interferes with your brain's ability to consolidate new memories."
The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse notes that alcohol can produce detectable impairments in memory after only a few drinks and, as the amount of alcohol increases, so does the degree of impairment. Large quantities of alcohol, especially when consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, can produce a blackout, or an interval of time for which the intoxicated person cannot recall key details of events, or even entire events.
"Typically when BAC (blood alcohol count) reaches 14% or higher, some people will black out. Keep in mind that this is really dangerous drinking behavior," warns Hultin.
Alcohol Effect #5: The Spinning Room
When you finally reach your bed, you might find that the room is spinning. There isn't much you can do besides place one foot on the floor to ground you and wait to fall asleep. But why does this happen? "Alcohol affects how the balancing systems in the inner ear function," explains Peacock. "The change in your blood due to the presence of alcohol means that the balancing system tells the brain that you are moving much more than you actually are, resulting in the spinning, dizziness or vertigo feeling."
Alcohol Effect #6: The 4 a.m. Wake-Up Call
The reason you sometimes wake up early when you drink heavily is down to your liver, "What happens when you wake up is that blood sugar levels have dipped low because drinking impairs the liver's ability to release the right amount of glycogen into the blood to keep blood sugar levels stable," says Peacock. Essentially, your body is waking you up because it needs sugar!
Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means you're more likely to wake up needing to go to the toilet. This is is also a factor in why you end up with a banging headache the next day because you're dehydrated.
You also feel terrible the next day because alcohol is the enemy of quality sleep. “Consuming just one unit of alcohol before bed reduces your restorative sleep by around one hour. So having two large glasses of wine in the evening and sleeping for six hours means you won’t actually get any restorative sleep, and therefore won’t recover overnight," says Nigel Stockill, Performance Director at fitness device company Firstbeat. "Our data consistently shows that those who drink alcohol recover less in their sleep, less during the day, and spend more time in the ‘stressed’ zone during the working hours.”
Alcohol Effect #7: The Hangover and "Hangxiety" Are Real
The dehydrating nature of alcohol leads to nausea and headaches, but that's not the only reason you feel like death the next day.
"When it comes to hangovers, most evidence right now points to the toxin acetaldehyde, which is created as the liver metabolizes and tries to excrete alcohol from the body," says Hultin. "Due to genetic variations, each person will have more or less of this toxin in the body. The more of this toxin, the worse the hangover. The difference between hangovers in individuals could have to do with baseline hydration level, what was consumed/eaten with the alcohol, or even how well-rested the body is. Alcohol is toxic to the body, so the hungover feeling is the body's way of being exposed to that toxin."
You might also feel jittery the next day, "You have an elevated heart rate so your body can ‘clear the system’ of this poison faster. The body prioritizes this over regular functions," explains Stockill.
Oh, and then there are the feelings of paranoia or "hangxiety" next day where you mull over all the things you said and did the night before, confirming in your mind that yes, you are the world's worst person. This is down to the spike in GABA and drop in glutamate when you are drinking, that has you feeling all calm and anxiety-free. According to Nutt, once you stop drinking, your brain tries to rebalance these chemicals. Since it can take a while to get the levels right, this can lead to feelings of anxiety and paranoia the next day.
And sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there can be serious long-lasting damage from binge-drinking. "Studies have indicated that people who regularly drink heavily or binge drink were more likely to develop dementia than those who drank within the recommended guidelines. Alcohol damages the brain, causes brain shrinkage and interferes with the way the vitamin Thiamine is absorbed into the body, which is essential for providing energy to the body (and the brain uses a lot of energy)," says Dr Emer MacSweeney, Consultant Neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health.
"Stick to the recommended guidelines when drinking alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption can also lead to weight gain and keeping a healthy body weight will help to alleviate your risk of developing vascular dementia, as risk factors for this include being overweight."
Be Alcohol Aware: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that if alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men—and only by adults of legal drinking age.
Alcohol Effect #8: The Urge to Eat All. The. Food
Once your nausea goes, there is the unavoidable urge to eat everything and anything (as long as it's not healthy and definitely not salad). You want to carb load, stat! This is down to our blood sugar levels, according to Peacock. "Consuming alcohol can cause depletion of glycogen stores in the process of metabolising the alcohol," she says. "This will make your body crave carbohydrates to replace your glycogen stores. In addition to this, alcohol reduces the amount of Leptin, a satiety hormone."
Hutlin notes that alcohol might stimulate nerve cells in the brain's hypothalamus that increase your appetite, it's no surprise that you want to eat all the pizza, tacos and fries in sight.
And Finally: How to Drink Responsibly
It's as simple as this: exceeding the recommended guideline of one drink a day can cause a hangover and more importantly, increase risk of certain chronic diseases, warns Hultin. "As a registered dietitian, I do suggest eating with alcohol because alcohol is irritating to the stomach and the presence of food can mildly slow absorption of alcohol," shes says.
Keeping hydrated is also key. "To drink more responsibly try to alternate between a soft drink—water, fizzy water, soda water—and your alcoholic drink of choice," suggests Peacock. "Most importantly, try to drink a big glass of water before bed because this will help to keep you hydrated."
For anyone worried about their drinking and wants free, confidential information, help and support from other AA members. Contact your doctor or reach out the Alcoholics Anonymous.