Alcohol use is so common in the United States that it’s the only recreational drug that the vast majority of people have tried at least once before. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 85.6% of adults over the age of 18 have tried alcohol at least once. More than 25% of adults said they engaged in binge drinking in the past month.
Alcohol use is a prevalent part of life for many Americans, but how does it affect you in the short-term? It’s important to understand the immediate effects of alcohol on your brain and body. Knowing the risks and how to avoid them may be crucial to prevent the negative physical and cognitive side effects that can come with alcohol use. It may also help you prevent long-term issues like an alcohol use disorder.
How Does Alcohol Work in the Brain?
The alcohol that you can drink is actually a chemical called ethanol, and it’s the only alcohol that’s safe for human consumption. Alcohol works in the brain as a central nervous system depressant, which means that it slows down activity in the brain and nervous system. Some prescription medications share the same class, including benzodiazepines. Like those other depressants, alcohol achieves its effects by interacting with a natural chemical called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is the main chemical messenger in your brain that’s responsible for sleep and relaxation.
It works by binding to GABA receptors on your nerve cells and opens up a channel that lets in negatively charged ions that make it less likely for your neurons to fire. In other words, GABA attaches to your nerve cells and makes them less active. Alcohol also binds to GABA receptors but on a different site than GABA does. Alcohol makes GABA more efficient by making it keep those negative ion channels open for longer. When you drink, GABA’s effects become more potent, which leads to the sedating and relaxing feeling alcohol can give you.
The Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
But alcohol doesn’t just make you sleepy; it also affects other functions of your brain. As your nervous system is slowed down, you may also experience both cognitive and physical impairments. Your decision-making abilities and judgment may be suppressed, which lowers your ability to make smart decisions. GABA can also influence your anxiety levels. Anxiety is a product of your fight or flight response. When something makes you nervous, you’re alert, on edge, and ready to react.
GABA kick-starts your rest and digest response, which suppresses anxieties and alertness. Other depressants can be used to treat anxiety, but alcohol is known to suppress anxiety while your drinking. That’s why it’s often used as a social lubricant. A person drinks to release inhibitions about things, such as dancing and meeting new people. However, this lack of anxiety and the suppression of your decision-making ability can also get you into trouble. Drinking heavily can make you more willing to engage in risky behavior that you would otherwise avoid.
Drinking can also cause other behavioral and cognitive effects. You may feel the urge to talk more than you usually do. You may also feel more confident or have a sense of well-being. As alcohol suppresses anxiety, your inhibitions may be lowered, which leads to that sense of confidence or contentment.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?
Alcohol can also interfere with some of your physical functions as well. People who binge drink often feel dizzy, and they may stumble around when they get up to walk. Alcohol can cause muscle weakness and impair your motor functions. It also slows down your reaction time. Altogether, these effects can make tripping and falling more likely. And it makes it more dangerous to operate heavy machinery or a motor vehicle.
Alcohol can have some other physical effects that you may notice while you’re drinking. You may feel flushed, and your face may redden. Experienced drinkers also know what alcohol can do to your bladder. Your body doesn’t have a way to store alcohol, so it goes to work to flush it out as soon as possible. When you drink water or other beverages, your body will use and store as much as possible, eliminating any excess or waste over time. But alcohol needs to be processed right away, which is why you may feel the urge to urinate frequently during a night of drinking.
As your BAC gets into the 0.15 to 0.3 range, you may start to experience more pronounced effects on your coordination and motor skills. Your speech may be affected as your words become slurred, and pronunciation becomes more difficult. Very heavy drinking can affect your heart, causing changes in your heart rate. You may even experience arrhythmias, which is when the heart rate feels irregular.
Alcohol’s Effects on Driving
Drinking and driving can cause some of the most significant short-term consequences of alcohol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 people die in the United States every day in an alcohol-involved crash. In 2016, that accounted for a total of 10,497 people. The physical and cognitive effects of alcohol can work together to make a perfect storm of getting into an accident. Your judgment and decision-making are lowered, making it challenging to determine if you are capable of driving accurately.
You may also make poor decisions once you’re behind the wheel. Your dizziness, drowsiness, weakened muscles, and slower reaction time also makes the physical act of driving more difficult, and you may not be able to respond to sudden obstacles in the road in time. The best way to avoid an alcohol-related accident is to resolve not to drive if you plan to drink. Set up a ride home ahead of time. Don’t let social pressure, convenience, or a lack of preparedness put you in a car with an impaired driver.
Alcohol Poisoning and Overdose Effects
Of course, accidents aren’t the only way the short-term effects of alcohol can turn deadly. Like other drugs, drinking too much can lead to an overdose of ethanol, more commonly called alcohol poisoning. Excessive drinking in a short period can slow down your nervous system to a dangerous degree. For the most part, drinking moderately will slow down your nervous system in a way that causes relaxation, sedation, and other minor effects.
However, in heavy doses, it can start to affect some of the vital functions of your nervous system. Your nervous system controls some unconscious functions, including your breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. All of these functions can be affected by alcohol, but the degree they’re affected depends on how much you drink. Alcohol poisoning can start between a blood alcohol level of 0.25 and 0.39%.
At this point, alcohol can slow down your breathing and heart rate. You may also feel cold as your body temperature drops. At 0.4% or higher, alcohol poisoning can become deadly. Many fatal cases of alcohol poisoning end when a person stops breathing or their heart stops. You may also slip into a coma or suffer brain damage. The number of drinks it takes to get to that level can vary based on your weight, sex, and tolerance level.
But most people don’t set out to experience alcohol poisoning, and it can come without warning when you’re binge drinking. Plus, alcohol’s decision-suppressing nature can make overdoing it even more likely. Again, it’s important to set clear limits before your start drinking. Make a commitment to stick to your own limitations and find friends that will keep you accountable without encouraging you to drink more than is healthy.
Why Does Alcohol Make Me Feel Excited?
Since alcohol is a depressant, why does it fuel high-energy parties and make people feel excited? It’s true that alcohol’s primary action in the brain is as a depressant. However, it seems to cause different effects when your BAC is rising instead of falling. This is because alcohol also interacts with other chemicals in the brain like dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals are tied to reward, energy levels, and feelings of happiness.
As you first start drinking and your BAC is rising, you might experience feelings of excitement and high energy. But as your BAC starts to drop, you’ll start to feel alcohol’s depressant effects. Many people who develop substance use disorders start to use alcohol as a way to self-medicate for uncomfortable mental health issues like depression. Alcohol’s mood-lifting abilities provide temporary relief to depression symptoms, but as your BAC drops, alcohol can make depression symptoms worse.
When Do Short-Term Effects Become Long-Term?
Alcohol has several short-term effects and side effects, but can those issues become long-term problems? Heavy drinking can lead to some lasting effects, especially if you get close to an overdose. A heavy binge can damage your heart or liver. If you experience respiratory depression during alcohol poisoning, it could cause long-term issues like brain damage.
The damaging effects of alcohol are more likely to cause serious lasting issues if you drink excessively over a long period of time. But severely excessive binge drinking can also lead to complications, which is why you should moderate, even if you don’t have a history of alcohol use problems.