How Alcohol Gets You Drunk: Let’s Talk Science

 In Addiction & Recovery Ins and Outs, Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

Why Does Alcohol Make You Drunk?

Tons of people have had some beers before and felt what the sensation of “being drunk” is. Most of us, though, have no idea why alcohol makes us feel this way. Even people who become addicted to alcohol and drink all the time usually can’t explain what is happening in their brains when they drink alcohol.

So let’s talk some science and break it down. Why does alcohol make you “drunk”? What is happening in the brain when you drink alcohol? Why do so many people like the way it feels so much? It all comes down to one specific, notorious chemical.


All About Ethanol

This is the chemical that gives alcohol the intoxicating characteristics that we all associate it with. When the alcohol percentage is listed on the label of a beer, a bottle of wine, or liquor, that percentage is identifying the amount of ethanol in the beverage. Ethanol is also what makes rubbing alcohol, used in medicine and basic first aid, a sterilizing agent.

C2H5OH is the chemical structure of ethanol. The perfect conjoining of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen to impair more people historically than any other substance in the world. Alcohol is even now the most widely used and abused substance in the United States and most places of the world.

Part of the reason for this is because ethanol is produced naturally, when sugar is fermented by yeast. It turns out, there are a lot of different ways to accomplish this, fairly easily. You can do it with grain, fruit juice, honey… Wine for example, is just aged grape juice essentially. The sugar and yeast naturally are already present in the grapes. The rest is history.

How Does Ethanol Make You Intoxicated?

So making alcohol is easy, but why does the alcohol itself—or ethanol—make you feel all happy and social, and then eventually like you are in slow motion and the world is spinning?

There are three main things that happen in the brain when you consume alcohol that cause drunkenness: Dopamine and Serotonin release, Glutamate suppression, and GABA stimulation.

What are these nonsense words, you ask? Science gibberish!

Let’s take them one by one, then.

Alcohol Increases Dopamine & Serotonin

When you drink alcohol, it gets into your blood stream and that eventually takes it to the brain. In the brain, ethanol causes Dopamine levels to increase. This is a primary characteristic of many addictive substances, because this is the main neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. Like really good.

It also increases levels of Serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that is often missing or lower than it should be in the brains of people who have depression. This is part of the reason why 50 percent of alcoholics have Major Depressive Disorder. When you first drink some alcohol, there is a temporary flood of Dopamine and Serotonin in the brain. So your brain is like…. Oohhhh yeaaaaah! Like this:

Alcohol Suppresses Glutamate

So those happy chemicals, Dopamine and Serotonin, are why so many people like the way they feel after a few drinks. The impairment alcohol causes—like slurred speech and unsteady footing— is due to other functions. One of these is how ethanol interacts with the neurotransmitter called glutamate.

Glutamate usually stimulates neurons, but ethanol represses glutamate so it isn’t at work like it should be. This is where the slow motion feeling comes in. Without glutamate’s hype-man-style excitement, the brain reacts way slower to sensory stimulation.

While the Dopamine release makes alcohol addictive, this is part of what makes alcohol so dangerous in excess. This is part of why it is dangerous while drunk to drive and do other activities that require accurate vision, clear thinking, and fast reaction time. That’s because you’re on the slow-mo setting, kinda like this:

GABA Activated by Alcohol

Finally, ethanol also buddies up with gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). While alcohol stops glutamate from doing its job, alcohol puts GABA receptors into overdrive. This only heightens the slow-mo and low-function effect, because GABA receptors’ job is to make you feel sleepy and relaxed.

So, the hype man in the brain is distracted and the lullaby singer of the brain is working overtime. Plus, happy chemicals are flying around like butterflies and daisies in the brain currents.

This is a dangerous combination, because drinkers are easily pacified into thinking that everything is good. The reality, though, is that the most important functions of the Central Nervous System are being shut down. This makes the body function like a remote control car with dying batteries. NOT GOOD, like this:

Alcohol Addiction Through History

Alcohol has been a main substance of addiction throughout history. From the Ancient Greeks and Romans to Americans in 2018, Alcohol has been cultivated, imbibed upon, and abused. Some people have a harder time than others with abstaining and are more prone to addiction. While it can seem like a lot of fun, alcohol is extremely dangerous when used in excess or too regularly.

At least we now have many recovery services that were established to help people who struggle with addiction. If you think you might have a problem with drinking, or any other substance, there are many ways to get help. If you can’t stop drinking once you’ve started or can’t go a day without a drink, you might have a problem.

Don’t let it go until you feel like you’re drowning. Get help as soon as you can, so that things can start getting better instead of getting worse. Call (877)670-8451 to talk to someone who will listen to your story and tell you all the different options that are available to you. It is never too late to turn things around.

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