Imagine that there are two little programs in your brain. The first program creates lots and lots of ideas. All kinds of ideas. Good ones and bad ones. The second program looks at each one of those ideas and tells you if it is a good idea or not. This is what happens in the cerebral cortex, the frontal lobe of the brain. Most things that pop into our heads are bad ideas. “Should I throw this meatball?” Bad idea. “Should I step out in the street before a green light?” Absolutely not.
But what happens with alcohol? Alcohol is a nerve depressant, and blocks this second program from working properly. So all of those little ideas that your brain would immediately shut down, some of them get through. Sometimes this can be desirable, in that people can have a couple drinks in social situations to reduce anxiety. But it can also be very dangerous, in that you could end up doing things that your normal self would never do. These can range from the tremendously embarrassing to the downright harmful.
Be aware of how your brain works so that the next time someone dares you to chug that bottle of hot sauce, you can ask yourself, “What would my normal brain say?”
There are two main toxic substances that your body has to deal with when drinking. The first is congeners, which are byproducts of fermentation. These are most prevalent in dark alcohols like dark beer, red wine, and dark liquors.
The second toxic substance is acetaldehyde, which a byproduct of when your body metabolizes alcohol. After metabolizing alcohol, your body has to also neutralize acetaldehyde. Your body uses B-vitamins as a part of the metabolization process, and amino acids to neutralize toxins. The healthier you eat, the better you will be able to recover.
Has alcohol ever made you drowsy? It’s not just that alcohol is a nerve depressant, there is another better reason. Alcohol blocks the production of glutamine, an amino acid and a natural stimulant. When your body stops producing normal quantities of glutamine it becomes sleepy.
Even worse, this is why it can be hard to get a good sleep after drinking too much. When you go to sleep and your body begins to sober, your body compensates for the lack of glutamine by over producing while you are trying to sleep. The over production of this natural stimulant prevents proper deep sleep.
The cliche of drinking a brandy to warm yourself is not totally bogus, just misguided. In fact, alcohol does give you a warming feeling. But it does not make you warmer–rather just the opposite. Alcohol encourages blood to flow to your skin, giving you a flushed sensation and that feeling of warmness. But as a consequence, less blood is in your core organs, and thus alcohol actually lowers your core body temperature.
Alcohol is lighter than water and can permeate membranes very easily. This quality causes particular annoyance for your stomach lining. When drinking, your stomach sometimes will overproduce stomach acid, which can lead to symptoms and conditions like gastritis.
Drinking on an empty stomach makes your digestive system particularly angry, because the alcohol will quickly pass through the stomach and go to the small intestine. The small intestine has 100 times the surface area of the stomach and absorbs much quicker. Since all alcohol consumption will make you drunk, there is little “gained” by the increased efficiency of drinking on an empty stomach.
Breaking the seal is actually the most real of all the cliches. Your kidneys regulate the amount of water in the blood stream and filter out toxins. To regulate the amount of water, the kidneys utilize a chemical called vasopressin. Alcohol inhibits this, too. So the kidneys literally start filtering out three to four times more water than they should be filtering. This good water ends up being peed right into the toiled, and exacerbates dehydration. And after you pee for the first time, it becomes increasingly difficult to retain good water.
Your muscles get their instructions from the brain via the nervous system. When you drink alcohol (a nerve depressant) it slows down and messes up the signaling all along the way. It’s like an ugly game of Telephone for your body. Both your reaction time and your coordination slow down.
The impairment is chemical, so no matter how hard you concentrate, you still cannot function like you would sober. This is why certain functions—notably driving—are so dangerous after consuming alcohol. Your body is malfunctioning at a chemical level, and it doesn’t matter how “good” you are at a certain task.
People have been drinking beer, wine, and liquor for 6000 years and we have managed not to destroy the species yet. But it is important to understand the physical changes that happen to the body while drinking so that we can avoid the most obvious risks.