Within minutes of taking your first sip, alcohol enters your bloodstream through your stomach wall and is circulated to every part of your body, including your heart, liver and brain. It acts on nerve cells throughout your body and slows down the speed at which your nerves send messages to each other.
If you have one or two drinks, you may find you become more talkative and feel more cheerful and relaxed. But drink a couple more and you will take longer to react, you may misjudge situations and may also find that you start slurring your speech. Walking and co-ordination may also become more difficult.
So what’s happening to your mind and body?
Alcohol is a depressant. Drink too much and your brain will have difficulty processing information. This means you may have trouble with:
Your liver has many functions and one of them is to filter and clean your blood. It takes about one hour for your liver to clear a unit of alcohol from your bloodstream – this is the most your liver can handle at one time, so if you are drinking quickly, your liver has to work much harder. The more you drink, the more you’re going to feel the effects of alcohol.
Alcohol irritates your stomach. Alcohol increases the amount of acid your stomach produces. The acid can cause inflammation of your stomach lining. If you drink too much alcohol, you’re likely to have indigestion. If you have indigestion, you may have heartburn, feel or be sick, have a stomach ache and have problems with flatulence, burping or belching.
Alcohol makes your heart beat faster, which affects how well your heart pumps blood around your body. You may find that drinking alcohol gives you palpitations (arrhythmia). Alcohol can also cause your blood pressure to drop, which may make you feel faint. Drinking a lot of alcohol and binge drinking can cause changes in your blood pressure and increase your risk of a heart attack.
Alcohol makes you produce more urine. If you drink too much, your body will try to get rid of the alcohol, mixed with water, in your urine. Not only will you need to make repeat trips to the toilet, but if you don’t top up with water or soft drinks, it will leave you feeling thirsty and dehydrated.
Drinking moderate levels of alcohol can increase your sexual desire and, by reducing tension, enhance your enjoyment. But drink too much and its effects on the nervous system can make it difficult for men to achieve or maintain an erection (often called ‘brewer’s droop’).
Alcohol temporarily dilates (expands) the small blood vessels in your skin and on the surface of your eyes, making them look red. Drink too much and you will have bloodshot eyes, dark circles under your eyes and your skin may be more prone to bruising. Your skin may feel hot and sweaty, and you may smell of alcohol, as some alcohol leaves your body through sweat.
In the cold, the effect of dilated blood vessels in your skin may give you a false illusion of being warm, though the actual temperature of your body can fall, which can lead to hypothermia.
Alcohol contains a lot of calories and can lead to weight gain. It can also make your stomach feel bloated.
The morning after an evening of heavy drinking, you can expect to have a hangover. A hangover is nature’s way of telling you that you have overindulged in alcohol. Alcohol contains ethanol – a toxic chemical. It takes time for your body to turn the ethanol into a less toxic substance in your body. Symptoms of a hangover are caused by the combined effects of alcohol and its breakdown products on your body and mind. Typical symptoms include:
Worse still, you may not even be able to remember aspects of what happened the night before because alcohol can cause memory loss.
If you binge drink, which generally means drinking over twice the daily recommended amount in one session, you’re likely to feel ill and may get into situations where you are vulnerable or risk harming yourself or others through accidents, injuries and misjudgement. If you really overdo it, you’re likely to vomit and/or pass out. This may result in problems with breathing and can even be fatal, for example if you pass out and inhale vomit. If you drink too much in a short space of time, the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream can become dangerously high. This can lead to alcohol poisoning and you will need urgent hospital treatment.
If you’re struggling to keep within your limits, don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Talking to a close friend, a support group or your GP can help you understand your drinking habits and find ways to cut down how much you drink.
Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, December 2012.