We know that drinking too much isn’t good for us, but what actually happens when alcohol enters the body?

Unlike food, alcohol isn’t digested, it’s absorbed directly into the bloodstream. From there it travels quickly round the body and reaches the brain in just a few minutes. That’s why you feel the effects so quickly after drinking. It then moves from the blood stream directly into the brain cells, causing the physical and psychological changes that we associate with being drunk.

Heightened senses and emotions

After just small amounts of alcohol many people notice feelings of warmth and comfort, increased sociability and heightened senses. This is because some of the neurons in our brains that inhibit behaviours are affected first of all, but as more alcohol crosses into the brain activity starts to slow down. Some of us become very emotional at this point – weepy or giggly or wanting to fight.

After a couple of hours many of us just want to go to sleep. By this time coordination, memory and judgement are affected. Too much alcohol in a short space of time can be fatal as the parts of the brain that control automatic functions, such as breathing, slow down.

Loss of memory

Another feature of drinking too much is blackouts. Alcohol affects the parts of the brain responsible for memory so when you drink too much memories are not always stored or aren’t available when you try to remember what happened. Think of it like a video recorder (remember video recorders?). If you want to record your favourite show you need to press play/record – with a blackout it’s as though you either forgot to push the button so the show just isn’t there or you did record onto the tape but it got all spooled up and spaghetti-like so you need to take out the tape and wind it back in with a pencil. After that, some bits will play but other bits might still be missing.

Disease

It’s not just the brain that’s affected. Most of the alcohol we drink is processed by the liver, an amazing organ that has over 500 different functions. But the liver can only process about one unit of alcohol per hour, turning toxic alcohol into carbon dioxide and water.

If we drink more than this, it stays in the blood stream where it can cause harm. Breast cancer, heart disease, pancreatitis, brain damage and liver disease can all be caused by drinking too much for too long. In fact there are over 50 different illnesses that alcohol can cause. How much alcohol and how long it will take to cause these issues varies from person to person and the type of damage will also vary. Age, gender, weight, general health and genetics can all play a role in how each individual is affected by the alcohol they drink.

The dreaded hangover

One of the drawbacks of a night on the booze is the dreaded hangover – trembling, weakness, nausea, headache. Most of the symptoms are caused by dehydration. Not everyone who drinks experiences these but if you’re one of the unlucky ones make sure you drink lots of water before, during and after a few drinks.

Harm during pregnancy

Alcohol is also a teratogen, which means that it can cause harm to babies in the womb. Women are advised not to drink at all through their pregnancy as we know that birth defects can be caused by drinking during any trimester.

The good news is that if we stick to the recommended limit of 14 units a week (and not all in one go), most of us won’t experience any of the harms to our health described here. Work out how many units you are consuming a week with this unit calculator. And why not sign up for Dry January to give your body a break?