Humans have been drinking alcohol for a long time. We have always had a special relationship with this infamous molecule. The question remains why does alcohol make you drunk? Why can humans not live without it? While the latter question is up for debate, we have science to help us answer the former.
What Kinds of Alcohol Are There?
Alcohol comes in various forms, flavors, and levels of potency. For convenience, we have narrowed it down to four main categories:
Wine is the oldest known form of alcohol consumed by humans as some historians believe it existed 9,000 years ago. This is partly because wine basically ferments itself. Yeast thrives on the skin of ripe grapes and ferments juice into wine. It is a naturally-occurring process proven to have more health benefits than other forms of alcohol.
While grapes are the most common ingredient, wine can be made from various other fruits through fermentation. Peaches and berries, for example, also do the trick. Wine is divided into a few categories: red, white, champagne, and fortified wines.
Red wines are made from red and other dark-colored grapes. While white wine is produced by the fermentation of white grapes that have been mashed, dark-colored grapes have been prepared by removing the skins, pulp, and seeds. This preparation method can cause fewer skins in the prepared vat as it ferments.
As a result, white wines may have fewer of the beneficial chemicals that red wines have been proven to have. Fortified wines are distilled after initial fermentation for extra potency. These include sherry and brandy, sometimes called spirits due to their high alcohol content. Wine usually contains 8 to 15 percent alcohol by volume.
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Beer is one of the most commonly consumed alcoholic beverages in the world. Like wine, beer is made through a fermentation process. Brewers boil down barley and other grains, hops, yeast, and sugar. They then ferment them with high heat. Beer comes in many styles and flavors, ranging in alcohol by volume from as low as 3 percent to upwards of 12 and 13 percent.
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Liquor, commonly referred to as spirits, is the name for a variety of high potency alcoholic drinks distilled from fruits, grains, or vegetables. After fermentation, the alcohol is then super-heated to create steam, and thus, has a higher alcohol percentage. This process is known as distillation and has been around since the 14th or 15th century. Most spirits have an alcohol content of above 30 percent. Common liquors include whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, and tequila - all of which have a variety of flavors and alcohol percentages.
Alcohol for Other Purposes
Not all types of alcohol are safe for human consumption. Non-potable alcohols are used for household cleaning, industrial manufacturing, and medical use. Rubbing alcohol, for example, is used in medicine as a disinfectant and cleanser by killing bacteria on wounds. Other types of alcohols used for household cleaning are not safe to consume due to many hazardous ingredients used with the alcohol.
How Much Alcohol Does It Take to Get Drunk?
Scientists, researchers, and, even the curious student, may wonder why does alcohol make you drunk?
Now that we know about the different types of alcohol and how they are made, we can find out how much alcohol it takes to get drunk and what factors play a role in the process of becoming drunk. Drinking affects different people in different ways. Gender, age, weight - even what you had for dinner - all can play a role in how much alcohol it takes for you to become intoxicated. We all know that one person who can put down ridiculous amounts of alcohol before falling victim to the effects.
A pro-tip for a successful and safe night out is to mix a non-alcoholic beverage like water with each alcoholic beverage you consume. This will give your body more time to break down the alcohol consumed. It will also help you feel better the next morning. Alcohol is a mood altering substance. It affects the nerves that pass messages around the body by slowing them down and, the more you drink, the greater the effect. The reason people often get livelier when they have had a drink is alcohol affects parts of the brain responsible for self-control.
Why Does Alcohol Make You Drunk - The Science Behind It
As you drink, alcohol passes through your bloodstream. Ethanol is the intoxicating part of alcohol and it is soluble enough to pass through and between cell walls. It can pass into the gaps between brain cells and interfere with the neurotransmitters that enable all of the brain’s activities. Neurons are excitable cells that carry data and allow information and instructions to be carried around the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that allow neurons to communicate across tiny gaps known as synapses.
There are two types of signals neurons use to communicate with each other: glutamate, a neurotransmitter that normally excites neurons, and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) - which are inhibitory signals that tell us to do less.
So, why does alcohol make you drunk? What the ethanol does, is it races into the synapses and fills the gaps between the neurons. Scientists do not really know why, but our neurons cannot identify when this takes place and they end up "trusting" the ethanol molecules. The obvious result is an impaired sense of judgment and a willingness to do things you would not normally do, including risky and sometimes dangerous things.
When it binds to glutamate, ethanol does not allow the glutamate signals to become active, and this makes the brain slower to respond to stimuli. Conversely, when ethanol binds to GABA, it activates the depressive signals. GABA receptors make a person feel calm and sleepy, so the enhancement of these signals slows down the brain even more.
This double-bind effect (dulling the active signals and amplifying the sedative ones) is what we really mean when we say alcohol is a depressant. It does not make you depressed, at least not at low levels, but slows down and depresses your active functions. However, at the same time, it spikes the release of dopamine, exciting the part of the brain that perceives reward. Your brain tells you this reward is related to the ethanol, so you drink more, further slowing your brain function but increasing your sense of euphoria.
An Interesting Look at Moderate Drinking
Loss of motor function, memory loss, and nausea often only kick in after many drinks when the body reaches high blood alcohol concentrations. The vast majority of drinking is more moderate where perceptions of tipsiness are not as straightforward as simple brain chemistry. Meaning, after a beer or two, most people are not drunk, and it is not as cut and dry what is happening to the body at this point.
For instance, there were tests conducted by psychologist Alan Marlatt, who, in the 1970s, wondered 'why does alcohol make you drunk?'
In these tests, the taste of a placebo was indistinguishable from that of an alcoholic drink. He gave the placebo to half the subjects and alcohol to the other half. Within the alcohol half of the study, he truthfully told half of them that they were receiving alcohol, but made the other half believe they were receiving the placebo. He cut the placebo group in half the same way, leading half of them to believe they were receiving alcohol. Thus, he had people expecting alcohol and getting it, as well as people expecting alcohol and not getting it.
The results? Consistently, those who believed they were drinking alcohol – whether they actually were or not – showed signs of intoxication, including flushed faces, more animated behavior, and slurring of speech. Those who thought they were not drinking alcohol – even alcoholics, in some of the experiments – did not, even if they were indeed drinking alcohol. Marlatt also showed that the perceived effects of intoxication were far more pronounced in social situations than when subjects were drinking alone. This may tell us more about the human mind and the power of the placebo effect than it does alcohol, but there is still something to be learned from Marlatt's research.
Why does alcohol make you drunk? Perhaps because we want it to. If you are only having a drink or two, your mind still has control over your perceptions. Yet, as you keep drinking, simple brain chemistry tells us that you will have increasingly self-control over your actions and thoughts.
The Metabolism Process
Alcohol is eventually metabolized by enzymes in your liver at the rate of about 1 fluid ounce (29 milliliters) per hour, but this process can cause damage to your liver in the long term. Alcohol is also breathed out by the lungs, or excreted by the kidneys as urine. Whole ethanol molecules can even seep from the skin. Of course, if you consume too much alcohol in a short amount of time, your body will likely have no choice but to allow the alcohol to make a violent exit. Yes, we are talking about vomiting here.
Throwing up is often the common finale of a night of binge drinking. It is also worth noting that since the body has these different ways of excreting alcohol, you may smell of booze the day after drinking, even if you showered thoroughly. That is because the alcohol is still being breathed out by the lungs or it is still seeping from the skin.
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 because they pass out and their brain does not remind them to breathe. Another reason is that their gag reflex is so suppressed that they aspirate. Thus, when this happens, they inhale their own vomit and, essentially, drown in it.
Alcohol is not all bad. It has the power to give you the confidence you need to approach your crush at the bar or to loosen up enough to dance like no one's watching.
However, like most things in life, moderation is key. Through researching for and writing this article, we learned about the different kinds of alcohol and how potent they are. As a result, we have taught you about what to do to have a fun and safe night of drinking (mix a cup of water in between alcoholic drinks). Moreover, we have also learned about the basic science of what alcohol does when it enters your body.
So, why does alcohol make you drunk? There is a complex series of events that take place in your body. However, ethanol is the main culprit. Ethanol interferes with your neurotransmitters and ultimately affects your reasoning and ability to react reflexively. Enough alcohol can even make your brain forget to tell you to breathe!
One important thing to remember is that everybody's tolerance level to alcohol is different. Factors including gender, age, weight, genetics, and even the food in your stomach play a role in how your body responds to the substance. Therefore, you should always listen to your body and respond accordingly when enjoying alcoholic beverages, but remember your body and brain may be deceiving you once you have had something to drink. Have smart and safe plans in place before you even begin to drink alcohol. Failure to do so could be disastrous for you, as well as those around you!
Remember, alcohol has been around throughout recorded human history. This history has always been closely tied to use and, unfortunately, abuse of alcohol. However, as we become more aware of how this infamous liquid reacts in our bodies, we can adjust our intake and social behaviors toward it. Accordingly, however, this knowledge hopefully allows us to continue finding ways to make alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths less likely. At the same time, we should be careful not to assume that alcohol or the consumption of alcohol is inherently bad.
When taken and enjoyed in moderation, alcohol has done good things for humankind - whether for pleasure or medicinal purposes. If you were wondering why does alcohol make you drunk, we hope this article has helped. We hope it has informed you not only about the history of alcohol and how alcohol affects the mind and body, but also how we can enjoy this substance safely and responsibly.