How Does Alcohol Make You Drunk?

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 

If one drink makes you feel good, why do five make you feel like throwing up or passing out?
If one drink makes you feel good, why do five make you feel like throwing up or passing out?
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Alcohol's not all bad. It can give you the chutzpah to finally chat it up with that guy from work when you see him at the bar, or make shaking your booty in public to Pink's "Raise Your Glass" seem like a really, really good idea.

But go from a pleasant buzz to a full-on roar and, a few "go home, you're drunk" memes quickly come to mind. If one drink makes you feel good, why do six make you crouch in the backseat of a cab eating fistfuls of french fries as you slur street numbers toward a driver who seems so very un-invested in vodka's effect on your fast food addiction?

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Well, buck up, buttercup: The answer's in the alcohol. Or more precisely, in the ethanol, which has been part-and-parcel of alcohol for decades -- long before bootleggers and flappers gave it a good name. Here's how it makes you drunk.

When you drink alcohol, the water-soluble ethanol it contains has a free pass throughout your body. After it enters your digestive system, it takes a ride in your bloodstream, passes through cell membranes and strolls through the heart. It especially likes to hang out in the brain, where it becomes a central nervous system depressant. While in the brain, ethanol wanders around, causes feel-good dopamine to be released and links up with nerve receptors.

Of these receptors, ethanol particularly binds to glutamate, a neurotransmitter that normally excites neurons. Ethanol doesn't allow the glutamate to become active and this makes the brain slower to respond to stimuli. Ethanol also binds to gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). Unlike its stinginess with glutamate, ethanol activates GABA receptors. These receptors make a person feel calm and sleepy so the brain's function slows even further [source: Inglis-Arkell]. Of course, the severity of one's drunkenness is dependent on other factors, too. Gender, age, weight -- even what you had for dinner -- can all play a role in how much alcohol it takes to become intoxicated [source: Beck].

Alcohol is eventually metabolized by enzymes in the liver at the rate of about 1 fluid ounce (29 milliliters) per hour, but this process can cause damage to the organ in the long term. Alcohol is also excreted by the kidneys as urine, or breathed out by the lungs. Whole ethanol molecules can even seep from the skin. Of course it can also make a violent exit while vomiting [sources: Brown University Heath Education, Inglis-Arkell].

A flood of alcohol -- about 1 liter (2 pints) of spirits or four bottles of wine -- can depress brain function so much that it fails to send crucial signals to the body, like those that control breathing and heart rate. People die from alcohol poisoning (or acute intoxication) because they pass out and the brain doesn't remind their bodies to breathe. Another reason? Their gag reflex is so suppressed that they aspirate, which means they inhale their own vomit and essentially drown in it [sources: Health Promotion Agency, Loyola Marymount University].

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Originally Published: Sep 5, 2014

How Alcohol Makes You Drunk FAQs

What is in alcohol that makes you drunk?
It's ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol. After it enters your digestive system, it takes a ride in your bloodstream, passes through cell membranes and strolls through the heart. It especially likes to hang out in the brain, where it becomes a central nervous system depressant. While in the brain, ethanol wanders around, causes feel-good dopamine to be released and links up with nerve receptors. The liver breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde and then further into acetic acid. So, technically, you get drunk when you consume alcohol faster than breaking it down.
How many glasses of alcohol does it take to get drunk?
How drunk you get depends on many factors including gender, age, weight — even what you had for dinner. You also have to consider the size of the drink and how much alcohol it contains.
How long does being drunk last?
The intoxicants in alcoholic drinks can leave you drunk for about 5 to 6 hours. After this time period, half the alcoholic effect in your bloodstream will have ebbed away. However, if you've consumed alcohol faster than your body could metabolize it, the period of drowsiness may last longer than usual.
Why does being drunk feel good?
It all has to do with endorphins. Drinking alcohol releases our endorphins — those are the chemicals that produce feelings of pleasure — in areas of the brain. That's why many some people feel happy and have more courage when they've had several drinks.
Does alcohol kill brain cells?
Drinking alcohol doesn't kill brain cells, even among the heaviest of drinkers. What it does do, though is damage dendrites, which are the ends of neurons. That makes it hard for the neurons to send messages back and forth each another.

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Related Articles

  • Beck, Melinda. "Alcohol Math: Who Gets Drunk and Why." Wall Street Journal. Aug. 2, 2011. (Aug. 21. 2014) http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424053111903341404576482051743844220
  • Brown University Health Education. "Alcohol & Your Body." 2014. (Aug. 12, 2014) http://www.brown.edu/Student_Services/Health_Services/Health_Education/alcohol,_tobacco,_&_other_drugs/alcohol/alcohol_&_your_body.php
  • Health Promotion Agency. "Alcohol Poisoning From Drunkenness to Death." (July 2, 2014) http://www.alcohol.org.nz/alcohol-you/your-body-alcohol/health-effects/alcohol-poisoning
  • Ingliss-Arkell, Esther. "How Does Alcohol Get You Drunk?" iO9. Sept. 2, 2012. (July 2, 2014) http://io9.com/5939522/how-does-alcohol-get-you-drunk
  • Loyola Marymount University. "Alcohol Poisoning." (July 2, 2014) http://academics.lmu.edu/headsup/forstudents/alcoholpoisoning/

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