What happens when you drink?

Lauren Booker | December 2018 | 7 minutes

Ever wondered how alcohol travels through your body and what it does while it's there? This blog explains what goes on from first sip until the next day.

We all know alcohol does something in our brain. For lots of us, that’s why we drink it! But what exactly does it do, and what else is going on in our bodies from the first sip to hangover recovery?

This text was adapted from Try Dry: The Official Guide to a Month Off Booze

First sip: Alcohol is absorbed, not digested. That means that from the moment you ingest it, it starts to make its way around your body through your bloodstream.

At 2 minutes: Once in the stomach, about 20 per cent of alcohol is absorbed. The rest carries on to your small intestine where it passes into the bloodstream. If the stomach is empty, it will travel to the intestines more quickly. This is why we’re often told not to drink on an empty stomach as it makes us feel the effects more quickly. Watch out though, this doesn’t mean that having a Big Mac before a bender will act as a super-shield to protect your body from the effects.

At 5 minutes: By this time the booze has reached your brain. Once there it disrupts chemical messages in different regions causing the range of effects that we know and love . . . and those we’re not so keen on. Everything from conscious actions like movement and thought to automatic functions like breathing and temperature control are affected. Essentially, we become less good at doing lots of stuff. We’re also getting dehydrated. And repeated heavy drinking over a long period can cause permanent damage to our neurons, the message carriers in our brains, leading to problems with memory, coordination and thinking.

After 30 minutes: It takes about this long for the alcohol to be absorbed and to be circulating through your bloodstream. It then passes to the liver for elimination. In about 30 minutes your blood alcohol concentration is starting to peak and that tipsy feeling has kicked in. As alcohol is a muscle relaxant, the muscular ring at the bottom of your oesophagus can get a bit too chilled and allow stomach acid through, causing acid reflux or heartburn.

At 60 minutes: It takes an hour for one unit of alcohol to be broken down by your liver. Your liver can’t work any faster than this (no matter how much coffee or water you drink) so if you consume more than one unit of alcohol in an hour, the rest will have to take a ticket and wait its turn in the bloodstream. Up to about 10 per cent of the alcohol is breathed out through your lungs (hence breathalysers) and the rest is broken down into carbon dioxide and water, which you will be excreting for the rest of the evening.

At 2 hours: If we continue to drink during this time we can expect to experience a range of psychological effects such as euphoria, sociability, paranoia, increased aggression and sudden mood swings. Physical effects are likely to include vomiting, poor coordination and terrible dancing. Our social sensibilities have become much weaker, which is why we don’t notice we’re hogging the karaoke machine.

Up to 6 hours: After four or more drinks your risk of injury is increased for about six hours as high levels of blood alcohol disrupt your coordination and thought processes. During this time you tend to be more clumsy or forgetful. You may fall asleep quickly, but it’s unlikely to be particularly restful sleep.

Up to about 10 hours: Sleep is disturbed for a number of reasons, including the blocking of REM sleep (the bit where you dream), interruption to your circadian rhythm (normal day/night cycles), the diuretic effect (extra trips to the bathroom), relaxation of throat muscles (snoring) and poor temperature control (sweating).

Up to about 18 hours: You’re likely to have a lower mood because of the depletion of a chemical called dopamine in the brain, the loss of important minerals and reduced glycogen, which makes blood sugar levels drop. After this, you gradually get back to normal, if you give your body a chance.

And that, people, is alcohol’s journey through your body from first sip to the next day. If you like what you’ve read, you can buy our new book Try Dry: The Official Guide to a Month Off Booze here.

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