We’re in the midst of the season to eat, drink and be merry and with holiday parties and festive gatherings dotting your calendar, it’s easy to drink more alcohol than usual. After all, celebrating often means champagne toasts and rounds of cocktails, wine and beer — plus, imbibing a bit sometimes makes those family get-togethers and office parties just a little less awkward.
But what really happens to your body when you throw back a few drinks? We asked our experts to walk us through alcohol’s effect on the average person. (Bear in mind that alcohol impacts everybody differently, based on your body composition, weight, sex, genetics and tolerance among other factors.)
So without further delay, here’s a breakdown of what happens to your body and brain — drink by drink.
The First Drink
For most people, one drink leads to a pleasurable buzz. “It makes you more likely to talk a lot, tell more jokes and interact with people,” says Dr. George Koob, Ph.D., Director, National institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. That’s because alcohol interacts with certain parts of the brain like the prefrontal cortex (responsible for executive function and decision-making), causing you to drop your guard. (If you’ve ever blabbed a secret after a few too many, you’re probably familiar with this effect!) Research has also shown that alcohol increases the release of dopamine in your brain’s reward center, particularly in men.
“Downed three drinks in three hours? It’ll take six hours for the alcohol to fully leave your system.”
But here’s a shocker: Unlike drugs like opioids (think: heroin or Vicodin), which act on only one receptor in the brain, alcohol touches all parts of your brain. “Alcohol can affect a whole range of systems and receptors,” says Dr. Richard Saitz, MD, MPH, professor of community health sciences and medicine at Boston University and Senior Editor of the Journal of Addiction Medicine. “It slows down a lot of systems [in the body].” Even one drink can impair things like reaction time, coordination and decision-making says Dr. Saitz. So reconsider driving if you plan to hit the road.
We all know how it goes: One drink at a party often leads to two or three drinks…or more. But who’s counting? Your body is. With each drink, alcohol accumulates in the body and its effects become more pronounced. According to Dr. Saitz, alcohol can even prevent the neurons in your brain from sending signals. This leads to an overall slowing of your behavior and reactions. (Which explains your slurred speech and why you can’t think straight.)
While your liver is busy metabolizing alcohol, your drinks continue to strip you of your social filter and for some, unmask various personality traits. Hello happy drunk….or angry drunk. As for stumbling over your own feet? That’s due to alcohol’s effect on your cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls muscular coordination. Your constant need to pee isn’t your imagination either. In fact, alcohol is a diuretic. And yes, you can smell alcohol on your breath. As blood circulates through your lungs, some of the alcohol in your bloodstream is released with your exhales.
“You can see some slowed brain waves for about a day while you’re experiencing a hangover.”
By your third drink, tolerance kicks in. “You’re not going to get the same bang out of that drink as you did with the first drink,” says Dr. Koob. You may start to feel sick too — whether you’re experiencing pain due to alcohol irritating your stomach, or full-on nausea and vomiting.
And ladies, we’ve got bad news: Women get more intoxicated than men after consuming equal amounts of alcohol. “Even at the same body weight as a male, a female will have higher blood alcohol levels,” says Dr. Koob. Since women have less water in their bodies per kilogram of weight compared to men, alcohol moves on to the bloodstream faster. According to Dr. Saitz, women may also have less of one enzyme that breaks down alcohol.
If you’re of Asian descent, you may also be missing a key enzyme — causing a metabolic reaction to alcohol. “Acetaldehyde [one of the by-products of alcohol when metabolized] accumulates so quickly that they start to flush. They may get a headache, palpitations and nausea,” says Dr. Saitz.
Regardless, that boozed-up feeling won’t go away anytime fast. According to Dr. Koob, it takes approximately two hours for men and women to metabolize one drink. So, even after you’ve taken your last sip, alcohol lingers in your body until it’s cleared. Downed three drinks in three hours? It’ll take six hours for the alcohol to fully leave your system.
The Alcohol Aftermath
If you were hoping to pass out and get a good night’s sleep, sorry to break it to you but alcohol actually disturbs your sleep. “It affects the stages of sleep,” says Dr. Saitz. “You don’t get the REM sleep or the same rest you’re supposed to get.”
Most of us are familiar with the pounding head, cottonmouth, nausea and the sweats that can follow a night out. And in fact, your brain actually works slower, too (no, it’s not just your imagination). “You can see some slowed brain waves for about a day while you’re experiencing a hangover,” says Dr. Saitz.
The main culprit of your hangover: Loss of water and fluids. The other reason: The yucky by-products of your body’s attempt to break down alcohol. “During the time [those by-products] are in your system, it can make you feel pretty lousy,” says Dr. Saitz.
When it comes to boozing, remember that moderation is your best friend. Even one binge-drinking episode, defined as roughly four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in two hours, can harm your health. And never mix alcohol with prescription drugs, especially those with a sedative component. It can lead to dangerous side effects.