What does alcohol do to you?

A lot of people know how alcohol makes us feel; happy, care-free and loud (so, very loud) but not a lot of us know what it actually does to our bodies. Alcohol is a substance, which means it affects our bodies pretty dramatically, in both good ways and bad. It’s time for you to get informed on what’s ACTUALLY happening on Saturday nights.

A young woman is staring at a computer screen, concerned. She is looking what drinking does. She is wearing a long-sleeved purple t-shirt. This is a wide-angle image.

What alcohol does to your brain

There are a lot of things that come up when you search ‘what does alcohol do to you?’; we’re gonna give you the SparkNotes version of it.

When you drink an alcoholic beverage, about 20% of the alcohol is absorbed in the stomach and 80% is absorbed in the small intestine.

One of the most rapid effects of alcohol is on the central nervous system (CNS), which controls a range of vital body functions including speech, muscles, sense organs and sweat glands.

Usually the CNS receives information from organs such as the eyes and ears, analyses it and then responds, perhaps by contracting a muscle. But alcohol slows the receiving part right down which, in turn, causes the usual, glamorous symptoms of being drunk. These include clumsiness, slurred speech, blurred vision, excess sweating and the dulling of our sensation of pain.

Alcohol also affects the outer layer of the brain (the frontal cortex) which controls conscious thought. This is why people under the influence often lose their inhibitions and end up with embarrassing stories. If you want to read some of these tales of shame, click here!

What alcohol does to your body

Dehydration: Alcohol is a diuretic. This means it encourages the body to lose more water than it takes on by pressing pause on the production of antidiuretic hormone. This means you feel the need to pee excessively, which speeds up the loss of fluid from the body.

Alcohol also lowers our stores of vitamins and minerals, which need to be in balance for the body to function normally. Dehydration caused by drinking can affect the balance by draining potassium from the body. This results in thirst, muscle cramps, dizziness and faintness.

The shakes: People who drink take in large quantities of increased glucose when they consume alcohol. Their body responds to this by producing more insulin, which removes the glucose. Once the process has started, the insulin carries on working, removing glucose from the blood. Low blood glucose levels are responsible for the shakes, excess sweating, dizziness, blurred vision and tiredness as the body processes alcohol.

Munchies: To overcome this feeling of lethargy, the body craves a carbohydrate boost, which is why many people want chips when they have been drinking. Let’s be real, nothing tastes quite like a cheeky Nando’s after a sesh, it’s just what drink does to you.

Of course, all of these effects only relate to a few nights out. There are more serious and long-lasting effects if you partake in heavy drinking.

What drink does when your body breaks it down 

The liver is the main organ that processes alcohol. It metabolises about 90% of the alcohol in our body while only about 10% is excreted through either our urine or breath. The liver metabolises alcohol at the rate of one to two units per hour, sometimes less than that in women.

The liver needs water to get rid of toxic substances from the body but, as alcohol acts as a diuretic, there will not be sufficient amounts in the body, so the liver is forced to divert water from other organs including the brain, which causes throbbing headaches.

More toxins are produced in the body as a by-product of breaking-down alcohol. When the liver is metabolising alcohol it produces acetaldehyde, a substance which has toxic effects on our liver, brain and stomach lining. This results in severe headache, nausea, vomiting and heartburn which come together to produce the ever-so-lovely hangover.

What alcohol does to your body during sleep 

It’s honestly wild what drink does to sleep. Alcohol interferes with sleeping rhythms, while dehydration reduces the quality of rest we get. Alcohol also relaxes the muscles in the back of your mouth, increasing the likelihood of snoring. So basically, if you’ve had some drinks, you’re going to be in for a rough night and probably a rough morning after (see below). That’s why so many people tell you to ‘sleep it off’ the next day, your body needs to fully recover.

What alcohol does to your body the morning after 

If your alcohol consumption was fairly high the night before, then you’re in for a fun morning. You could have one or all of these:

  • The toxicity of alcohol can irritate the stomach causing gastritis (chronic stomach upset) which’ll leave you puking up a storm.
  • Alcohol can cause inflammation of the oesophagus, the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach, which leads to heartburn.
  • Alcohol can affect your bowel movements. The small and large intestine reabsorb salt and water but alcohol interferes with this process often causing diarrhoea.

These are just some of the short-term consequences. If you drink heavily over long periods of time, there is a greater risk of damage to the body. This includes liver disease, narrow blood vessels and a weaker immune system. Binge drinking is a serious issue, you can read our article on it to get informed.  You can also click click here to find out more about the effects of alcohol.

The aftermath: Beyond what alcohol does to your brain

Drinking can do more than just affect your body and brain, it can affect your relationships with the people around you. If you find yourself becoming abusive or angry after a pint, it’s definitely worth thinking about. When you’re sober, open up to the people around you and work with them to figure out what’s going on.

If you don’t feel like that’s possible, you can always reach out to us on our 24/7 support service. Alternatively, you can use services such as SupportLine and FRANK who are always willing to help. Just know that you are not alone, all you have to do is ask for help.

Next Steps

  • Drinkaware offers advice and information on alcohol and your drinking habits.
  • Are you drinking too much? Drinkaware has a useful self assessment tool to help you discover if your drinking habits are healthy, or something to worry about.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 13-Aug-2021