We know how it makes us feel, but why does it make us feel that way, and what’s going on in the body as we increase our consumption of alcohol?
When you’re new to sobriety (or just browsing), it’s important to take some time to reflect on why you drink in the first place and the effects alcohol has on your body when you do.
Every time I catch myself feeling nostalgic for alcohol and a cigarette on a cool, breezy night, I force myself to remember that the “good” part of those things last MAYBE one hour. From there, it gets a little sketchy and rarely, if ever, ends with me feeling healthy and rested.
So why did I do it? Why do any of us?
Let’s take a little journey.
The First Minute You Drink Alcohol
Oh, I remember it well. I’d come home from a long day of work, mentally exhausted, happy to be home. As soon as I’d walk in the door, I would light up with anticipation. There, in the kitchen, my chilled bottles of cider and pack of Marlboro Lights waited for me.
Within two minutes, I was out on the balcony lighting up and cracking open my first cider. You know how some people say, “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee”? That was me after work, except with booze.
That first sip feels incredible.
And there’s a good reason for that. It only takes one minute for alcohol to reach the brain, and once it gets there, it instantly releases norepinephrine (feel-good chemicals). This is the most sought-after effect of alcohol and the reason we keep coming back.
How does it do this? Small blood vessels in your mouth and tongue are the first recipients of alcohol into the body. From there, alcohol is absorbed fairly rapidly via the stomach and small intestines (which is why drinking on an empty stomach means you get drunk faster).
Within 5-10 minutes, you really start feeling the effects of alcohol. Man, I loved those first few minutes. The head rush of alcohol mixed with nicotine left me feeling like my whole body was exhaling for the first time all day.
It scratched the itch, so to speak. My brain was in desperate need of a dopamine fix, and that first cigarette and bottle hit the spot every time.
The First Hour Of Drinking Alcohol
It never took me very long to finish that first drink, and I would typically chain smoke my way through at least three cigarettes before coming up for air (literally and figurately).
Even though the body is only able to metabolize one drink per hour, I insisted on having 2-3 in that time. Sure, it started off well enough. I generally felt great after a couple of drinks! That’s because alcohol hasn’t had time to wreak too much havoc (unless you’re slamming shots).
Plus, if you’re a moderate to heavy drinker, your brain has come to rely on alcohol for dopamine. It’s why the giddy anticipation of the drink and the relief of finally having one is such a powerful driver.
In your first hour of drinking, your senses are heightened. You feel alert, stimulated, more social. Ever wonder how drunk YOU always acted like the life of the party while sober YOU is more of a wallflower? That’s why.
Assuming you’re not doing keg stands or Jager bombs, the first hour of drinking is relatively euphoric. And if we only had one drink during that time, it wouldn’t be too much of an issue. We could say, “Hey! This is pretty great!” and leave it at that.
But the vast majority of us don’t, myself included.
Why You Tend To Keep Going Once You Start Drinking
According to an article in Shape Magazine, our brains are hardwired to keep drinking. From the article:
“When alcohol enters your system, it affects the feel-good dopamine D1 neurons found in the part of your brain that controls motivation and reward systems, called the dorsomedial striatum. Researchers found that these D1 neurons actually change their shape when stimulated by booze, encouraging you to keep gratifying them with more liquid happiness.”
That’s extremely hard for your brain to resist, even if “you” know better. I wanted that dopamine rush as fast as I could get it, and then I didn’t want it to end. The problem is, I started to lose control over what the alcohol was doing to me.
It takes thirty minutes for you to fully feel the effect of alcohol, so even though you may be happily and coherently chugging along right now, in an hour or so, those additional 2-3 drinks you slammed are going to hit you like a ton of bricks.
Three Hours After You Start Drinking
Depending on where and with whom I was drinking, this could be the start of a not-so-great effect of alcohol I like to call my “zombie mode.”
Chemically, the norepinephrine has begun to drop off so the initial drinker’s high is fading. You’re coming down, an effect of alcohol that’s not so great.
This is your brain trying to compensate for the dopamine flood it just received. It does this by suppressing the excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate, and increasing the inhibitory (read: sedating) neurotransmitter, GABA.
Now, instead of being happy, full of life, jokes, and charm, you’re slowing down and talking less. You’re zoning out. You’re on autopilot.
Maybe you’re even getting a little depressed. Suddenly that overstimulated brain is having an existential, what-does-it-all-mean crisis and you’re emotionally unloading onto the people you are with or on social media.
Oh, God forgive me for the embarrassing, drunk social media posts and messages of yore! (If you’re reading this and ever got one of these sad, little cries for help from me, I sincerely and humbly apologize.)
At three hours in, regions of your brain are literally shutting down – specifically the prefrontal and temporal regions. What do those do? Ehhh, not much. It’s just the region associated with memory formation and decision-making.
I have to believe that most normal people would cut themselves off at this point before any more damage is done. But not your girl! Oh no. I’m still going at this point.
After Three Hours Of Drinking
Here’s how this next phase would typically go for me. Perhaps you can relate:
After three hours, I started my descent into Miss What-Does-It-All-Mean status. Typically, came to the conclusion that drinking MORE was the solution. After all, it made me feel good a few hours earlier, and perhaps if I drink more, I could get back to that.
Let’s say your blood alcohol levels are hovering around 150 mg/dL at this point. Gone are your inhibitions, better judgment, and very likely your dinner (if you even bothered to eat any). The effects of alcohol are in overdrive.
At this point, you’re either throwing up or trying really hard not to. At the height of my drinking days, I had no problem puking, and coming right back outside to my little chair on the balcony to continue drinking and smoking.
Food? Only if I absolutely must.
If you’re approaching the five-hour mark, you may be ready to pass out, except don’t expect to get much quality sleep. Maybe you’ve really overdone it and now you’ve got a nasty case of the spins which sends you running to the toilet where you may or may not remain for the rest of the night.
Does anyone have some water?
The Effects of Alcohol One Day After Drinking
Fun fact that I did not know until doing research for this article. From Shape Magazine again, “Alcohol suppresses a hormone called vasopressin, which tells your body to hold onto its water stores. As a result, you pee more and wind up dehydrated.”
This is why you end up sick to your stomach with a raging headache. Or you wind up wrestling with a major case of “hangxiety.”
It also explains the drinking phenomenon you may know as “breaking the seal”
In the same article, Dr. Joshua Gowin explains that “the byproducts created as your body processes alcohol can lead to an increase in inflammation-causing agents that make you feel generally “icky” and brain dead.” I’ve spent countless hours on the weekend staring blankly at my bedroom ceiling, slowly dying and wanting to disappear.
The insatiable thirst, foggy brain, unrelenting nausea, and smoker’s congestion could last up to 48 hours or more. It depends on a number of factors.
If you drink heavily several times or more per week, you will find that you’re trapped in an endless hangover/recovery cycle.
My life winded up looking something like this:
Drink (way too much), wake up feeling like shit, try to function the next day at work, repeat.
There were two or three years of my life where I don’t think I ever woke up feeling good. Even though I knew I was likely to roll into work chugging Diet Cokes to feel human again and be easily emotionally triggered (not a great quality for a middle school teacher), I still came home and drank every day.
I wanted to feel better. I wanted to stop, but I just couldn’t.
Use this information to help you quit drinking.
Anytime I get some bright ideas about having a drink, or even thinking fondly of nights I drank and smoked, I remember what happens after the first hour when things start to go south.
I force myself to remember what it feels like to have the spins, to be a slave to the toilet, to violently dry heave because there’s nothing left in there to throw up, to have a mouth that tastes like ash no matter how many times I brush.
It’s not a pretty picture, I know, but it’s enough to snap me out of whatever grand delusion I have that alcohol is fun.
What’s the point?
Even on the nights that didn’t end with embarrassing antics, the recovery time the following day or days after was never really worth it. I’ve lost whole days of my life and for what? A night out at the bar with friends?
What did those nights ever do for your life? Do you have a better job now because you got trashed at the club? (I don’t know, maybe you do). Has your health improved? Are you happier?
Only you can answer those questions for yourself. For me, and a lot of others, I can’t think of any instance where alcohol added enough value to my life that it canceled out the hangover.
Sure, I’ve had some epic nights, but alcohol isn’t really what made them great. That last part is the important thing to remember. Because alcohol can help us feel less inhibited and buoyant (at first), we incorrectly associate fun with alcohol.
One of the beautiful things about sobriety is that you eventually learn you can have the exact same level of fun without alcohol.
It all comes with time and a daily commitment to do this whole life thing without booze.