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How Your Body Processes Alcohol

Anyone who has ever drank a glass of alcohol knows that after some time and a few more drinks, you begin to feel different. Your body feels more relaxed, you might get a little gigglier and go out of your way to talk to someone across the bar. Just how does this fermented liquid take away the natural everyday feelings we have and turn us into a wobbly mess?

First, alcohol travels through the blood vessels on the tongue and around the mouth. Once swallowed, it travels down the esophagus into the stomach. If your stomach is full, it takes longer to break down the alcohol. A muscle between the stomach and small intestine, called the pyloric sphincter, closes, forcing the stomach to digest the food before the alcohol can be processed. This is why you don’t get as drunk on a full stomach. If your stomach is empty, it still absorbs some of the alcohol, but it quickly makes its way to the small intestines. Some alcohol enters the bloodstream through the stomach while the remaining alcohol enters through the walls of the small intestines.

Once alcohol reaches the bloodstream, it travels all over your body. Ethanol, the active ingredient within alcohol, is the culprit for making you feel drunk. This chemical passes through cell membranes and water channels created by proteins (called diffusion and filtration) and flows throughout your body into your heart and into your brain. Your heart naturally beats 60 to 100 beats per minute. Alcohol increases this heart rate, leading to higher blood pressure from more stress on the heart. Prolonged drinking has a negative impact on the heart because of the fat alcohol produces within the blood. High levels of fat can cause plaque. Plaque has the ability to block the proper amount of blood needed to flow to the heart, causing a heart attack.

Alcohol reaches the brain only a minute after that first sip. Within 30 minutes after drinking, you will start to feel some changes. Ethanol sparks the brain upon entering by binding to glutamate, the neurotransmitter that arouses neurons. The chemical also binds to GABA which then activates its receptors. In turn, it slows down brain functioning and produces calm feelings. Since the brain is slower to function, it is slower to react, slower to form words, and generally decreases its ability to function in other ways. Too much alcohol can force the brain shut down, making the vital organ unable to work and sometimes even forget how to breathe.

Ethanol loosely rattling around in the brain causes the chemical dopamine, which controls natural feel-good responses, to release. The more ethanol takes up space within the brain, the more dopamine is produced. As more dopamine is released as an effect of the drug, dependence starts to develop. Just like with any drug, as dopamine starts to flood the brain, the brain produces less as a rebuttal. As drinking patterns emerge within an individual’s life, it will take more alcohol to feel happy, thus birthing an addiction.

After consuming several drinks, you are probably on the verge of feeling drunk. Staying drunk forever is not possible, your body will eventually get rid of the alcohol through the metabolization. So how does the process of getting drunk continue?

20% of alcohol consumed flows from the stomach through the bloodstream to the brain and other parts of the body. What happens to the other 80%? After entering the bloodstream, it travels to the liver to become metabolized. Everyone’s liver metabolizes at the same rate- approximately one standard drink per hour, no matter how big, what gender, or how tolerant the person is.  Out of the 100% of alcohol that enters your body, 10% is excreted through sweat, urine, and vomit, etc. The rest, one way or another, finds its way back into the liver where it is metabolized.

Two enzymes known as alcohol dehydrogenase and Cytocrome P450 2E1 are responsible for breaking down the chemicals within alcohol. First, ethyl alcohol is turned into Acetaldehyde, which is broken down further, so that the body can easily absorb it. Many people try to sober up by drinking coffee or eating fast food, but in reality, there is no way to speed up the process of this enzyme.

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