Alcohol: How It Works

In Chemistry lingo, alcohols are carbon compounds with a hydroxyl group bound to one of the carbon atoms…but it’s weekend, who wants to hear about Chemistry, right?

Now, in party lingo (yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!) alcohol is the shit! “inappropriate four letter word for bowel excreta”. The party elixir, the juice, the sauce, the hooch, liquid courage, sods…I could go on and on. Alcohol is a thing of many names.

Alcohol is consumed for different reasons and in very different places but alcohol doesn’t really care where you are or what your intentions were, if you guzzle one glass (or whatever measuring device at your service) too many, your brain goes haywire and starts doing series of hoola hoops. This is when your supposed friends conveniently decide to jump-start conversations, turn their video cameras on,  and capture the moment for posterity sake.

So how do these hoola hoops happen? What process gives you the hand-eye coordination of a 2-year old and makes your motor skills non-existent? What goes on inside your body when you get drunk?

Alcohol contains ethanol, ethanol is water soluble. When you drink alcohol, the water-soluble ethanol it contains diffuses through your stomach into your bloodstream and from there it can pretty much go anywhere; it seeps through your muscle, moves through cell membranes, spreads to your lungs and eventually as its concentration goes up, finds its way to your brain. This is where things interesting (…and really geeky).

Your neurons, like other cells in your body, rely on receptor proteins embedded in the cell membrane to help them respond to conditions in the body. Receptors have one or more molecules that cause them to become activated. Ethanol at high enough concentrations will stick to receptors, activating some and suppressing others,

Alcohol’s first stop in the brain is in the nucleus accumbens.  The nucleus accumbens is close to the reward center of the brain, and there it hot-wires the system and causes a bunch of feel-good dopamine to be released. This makes people feel really good.

The receptors that handle a neurotransmitter called GABA are strongly activated by ethanol molecules sticking to them. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, so the activation of this receptor slows the brain down — it makes you feel calm and relaxed. This is why drunkenness tends to make people talkative and less stressed.

Other receptors in the brain are simply blocked by ethanol without being activated. This includes the NMDA receptor, which normally responds to a molecule called glutamate. With the receptor blocked, it can’t do its job, which is to increase neuronal activity and control memory function. This contributes to the sluggishness we feel while drunk, and also the memory issues excessive drinking can cause.

The more alcohol is consumed, the more the nervous system is depressed, and that can take things from pleasant to dangerous or in Drake’s voice “from 0 to 100 real quick”. A blood alcohol content of 0.1% is where nervous system impairment becomes severe enough to affect motor control (wobbliness) and speech. At double that level, unconsciousness is common.

Alcohol concentrations of 0.4-0.5% are usually high enough that brain activity becomes so depressed that  it fails to send crucial signals to the body, like those that control breathing and heart rate. More commonly, the gag reflex disappears, making it possible for a person to aspirate on their own vomit and die. That’s not a pleasant way to go.

So when you start seeing whorls and when your buddies start to look like phantoms, just let go of that bottle or glass or pint or whatever you were guzzling from. Nobody is looking forward to carrying you when you pass out.

Drink responsibly!





Author: Chikezie Iroegbu