Ever wonder how alcohol gets people drunk? Let’s look at the science behind it.
Alcohol is made using a process called fermentation (in which yeast breaks sugar down into ethanol). As someone drinks, ethanol makes its way into the bloodstream. Its tiny molecules bind to your brain cells, slowing down parts of your brain that control your behavior, thought processes, coordination, and memory. The more alcohol a person consumes, the more these processes are affected.
What is a binge, really?
You’ve probably heard of binge drinking, and you know there are consequences (e.g., bad decisions, blackouts, accidents, and even death). What you might not know is that the amount of alcohol considered a “binge” is probably less than you think. It’s defined as consuming four or more alcoholic drinks in about a two-hour period for females, and five or more for males. However, because teens tend to be smaller than adults, some research suggests that for teen girls, a binge should be considered three or more drinks, and for teen boys, four or more drinks.
“I thought binge drinking meant having almost a whole bottle to yourself, or drinking to the point of being unconscious. I’ve seen people at parties drink at least a few drinks per hour, if not more.”
—Jordan*, junior, Miami, Florida
“During a binge, you drink at a level that gets your blood alcohol to 0.08 percent and higher,” says Dr. Aaron White, senior scientific advisor to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in Washington, DC. “That’s also the level for which it is illegal for adults to drive a car.” But drinking is illegal for anyone under the age of 21, and it’s also illegal for anyone under 21 to drive a car with any alcohol in their system.
In short: Binge drinking sounds way scarier than “heavy drinking” or “getting drunk,” but it’s essentially the same thing.
So what happens in our bodies when we drink excessively? And how do we know when someone might need help? Read on to find out.
Think a nauseating hangover is the worst part of drinking? Think again. Here’s how alcohol can take a toll on your body.
You’ve probably heard about blackouts (which happen when large amounts of alcohol interfere with brain receptors and temporarily block the creation of new memories). But did you know that heavy drinking can affect long-term memory too?
“In studies, MRI scans of the brains of teens who drank heavily showed damaged nerve tissue compared to those who did not,” says Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, a PhD candidate in counseling education, author, and blogger for Psychology Today’s “Teen Angst” column. Heavy alcohol use can also cause long-term damage to memory, coordination, and movement, according to the NIAAA.
Drinking leads to inflammation and dehydration. That’s bad news for organs and overall health, and it can also wreak havoc on skin. Alcohol can make skin look red, blotchy, and puffy, and it can even cause rashes or hives, according to a 2010 study published in Clinics in Dermatology.
Studies have found that even one night of heavy drinking can weaken a person’s immune system, so they’ll be less likely to fight off infections such as the common cold or the flu. According to the National Institutes of Health, research also suggests long-term heavy drinkers are at higher risk of contracting diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and HIV because of the damage done to their immune systems. Heavy drinking also increases the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, partly because drunk people are more likely to practice risky sexual behaviors, such as not using a condom.
If you have trouble falling asleep, maybe the idea of passing out after a few drinks sounds appealing. The truth is that while drinking can make someone fall asleep faster, it dramatically decreases the quality of sleep. That’s (in part) because it reduces REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which can lead to poor concentration and drowsiness during the daytime, according to a 2012 review of studies.
It’s been coined as an easy way to relax, but drinking can actually make symptoms worse for anyone dealing with anxiety or depression. Alcohol is a depressant, and it can disrupt serotonin levels and other neurotransmitters in your brain (the ones that keep you feeling happy and balanced), according to research. In other words, heavy drinking can actually make things feel worse while you’re drinking and in the long run.
“I think that people drink because they feel it is a drug that will make them forget, but whenever the person is sober again, their memories will still be there.”
—Laura*, senior, Brooklyn, New York
Aaron White, PhD, senior scientific advisor to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Washington, DC.
Davis Smith, MD, internist and director of health services at Westminster School, Connecticut.
Donna Cornett, MA, director of the Drink/Link Moderate drinking program and author of Beat Binge Drinking, Santa Rosa, California.
Margie Skeer, PhD, substance abuse prevention researcher and assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Health and Community Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts.
Marisa M. Silveri, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Neurodevelopmental Laboratory on Addictions and Mental Health Brain Imaging Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.
Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, MS, LPC, professional counselor and author of numerous psychological wellness books for teens, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.
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