Beverages that contain ethanol are considered alcoholic: beer, wine, and liquor are a few of the familiar subcategories. Generally, people consume alcohol to feel the effects of ethanol, which causes intoxication and impairment of physical abilities, which people use to relax and celebrate. What exactly happens to your body when you consume alcohol? Here is your body’s process for breaking down ethanol, and how it affects your physical and cognitive abilities.
Entering the Bloodstream
When you first consume alcohol, it generally takes about 30-60 minutes for your body to break down the ethanol sugars, which are then absorbed by your bloodstream. However, the effects of alcohol can be felt within 5-10 minutes from initial absorption. Depending on the level of food in your stomach, alcohol can also take shorter or longer to be fully absorbed and passed into the bloodstream. Your liver takes on the brunt of processing the alcohol since the body considers alcohol to be a poison that is filtered from other nutrients. When alcohol is consumed faster than the liver can filter, the ethanol then travels to your brain, where it produces inhibitory effects described as a “drunk” feeling.
Effects on Cognitive Abilities
Once ethanol travels to your brain, it acts as a suppressant to your central nervous system, inhibiting the speed of your neurotransmitters. Because of this, consuming alcohol impairs cognitive abilities, leading to slower reaction time, reduced decision-making skills, and slurred speech. The euphoria that many people describe from the consumption of alcohol stems from the increased levels of dopamine, which are reduced after each consecutive drink.
At higher doses, alcohol begins to make a bigger impact on cognitive abilities: memory-loss, an absence of mental functions, and unconsciousness can result from the nervous system becoming overwhelmed by a high concentration of alcohol. In some extreme cases, alcohol can lead to the slowing of breath and heart rate to the point of death.
When alcohol has been processed completely by the liver, “hangover” effects can be present. The severity of these side effects are influenced by age, gender, and size, but the general effect is nausea and headache. Because alcohol stimulates the production of stomach acid, vomiting can occur as a result of consumption. Headaches generally occur the morning after because of alcohol dehydrating effect: alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it causes the body to push minerals and vitamins through the kidneys, which causes headaches and migraines.