Being drunk is something that most of us experience regularly. Here we are actually knowingly poisoning ourselves temporarily in order to desensitise our senses and to slow down and eventually stop our higher cognitive functions. What also seems surprising is that we do all this without really knowing often precisely what’s happening in our bodies during this process.
Here we will look at what actually occurs when we drink alcohol in stages and how we are affected at each step. We know how it feels and for the most part we find it enjoyable. Here is what it actually does, and by understanding the process it can help you to stay safer and to better understand why certain laws exist and why certain side effects occur.
First of all you drink the alcohol. This is then swallowed into our stomachs and absorbed by the small intestine. It then passes into the blood where it will be carried around and circulated throughout the body. If we drink on an empty stomach then this makes us get drunk faster as there is nothing between the alcohol and our stomach walls meaning it is absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly.
Your body will try to eliminate the alcohol via urination – this is why we need the toilet more when we are drinking alcohol and why it dehydrates us. It’s also why we colloquially called being drunk getting ‘pissed’. It will also try to remove the alcohol through our breath which is why breathalysers work and by breaking it down in the liver. This is a struggle for the liver and is the reason that someone who drinks too much alcohol will have a damaged liver.
It takes your body about an hour to break down the alcohol from on unit in this way. If you drink only one unit per hour then, you should find you do not get drunk (though this depends on other factors such as your bodyweight, how much else you’ve eaten, your own personal tolerance etc). If you drink at a rate faster than a unit an hour you will get drunk more quickly.
It is when the alcohol reaches the brain that we start to feel drunk and it inhibits areas of the brain in a specific order. Each brain area is responsible for different things and as each one is affected it alters your behaviour in different ways. As a rule it works front to back and affects your higher brain functions first before the others. The first affect it has is to affect the cerebral cortex which we could equate to the ‘Superego’ in Freudian psychology that regulates our behaviour. This then causes us to become more talkative and less inhibited, and in some cases to be more inappropriate. This is why beer is so often considered a ‘social lubricant’ and makes us more talkative and friendly in a crowd. This will also slow down your high-order cognitive abilities such as decision making, maths and processing.
Next the alcohol reaches the hippocampus. This is responsible for both emotion and memory. As a result you will find that you feel exaggerated emotions – if you feel optimistic at the time then you will likely become very happy and feel warm feelings to everyone, while if you are feeling down before you start drinking, then you will likely become very upset and depressed. As this area is also responsible for laying down memories it means that you may have only fragmented memories, or no memory of things that occur from this point onwards. It’s not that you forgot as such, rather the memories were never formed properly.
The alcohol will then move to the cerebellum which is responsible for maintaining balance. As such you will start to sway and potentially fall over. Other motor movements and coordination will also be affected meaning that you are less able to place down your glass without spilling it and will slur your words.
Finally the alcohol reaches your medulla if you continue to drink. This is serious – the hindbrain is responsible for not your higher order functions, but is part of your hindbrain and so regulates our most basic abilities such as breathing. If these abilities become impaired you will become paralytic and will require stomach pumping. If you continue to drink or do not get medical attention it may result in death.