We often feel a little less coordinated, less sharp with our reflexes and slurring our words after a few too many drinks. And the irony in alcohol making our speech slurred, it makes engaging in conversations easier and lowers your inhibitions.
According to Fusion, alcohol is the most commonly used addictive drug in the United States, and to no surprise its a social drug which is easily accessible practically everywhere. In 2014, United States residents consumed a combined total of 249 billion liters of alcohol, also equivalent to 66 billion gallons.
Alcohol is one of the oldest recreational drugs used until this date however it’s still hip and trendy. One may wonder how alcohol can make our brains feel so good and then so bad. Ethanol. the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages, subdues brain cells within the cerebral cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for advanced reasoning As a result of ethanol subduing the brain cells, the area of our brain which would usually indicate something is a bad idea gets tuned out. Ethanol also has the same effects on the cerebellum, the area of the brain which is responsible for coordinating movement and balance.
Similar to other drugs, alcohol disrupts the number of chemical messengers in the brain, it especially disrupts the glutamate and GABA levels. When alcohol is consumed it transfers from the bloodstream and into the brain, once it transitions into the brain it amplifies the effects of GABA. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is brain chemical which is responsible for preventing certain neurons from sending messages to one another. GABA essentially is a silencer which keeps the “neuron” noise down in the brain allowing the brain to focus on the more important signals.
Silencing neurons is done by GABA controlling the flow of ions, negatively charged particles, through the small channels on brain cells. The brain can shut down with too many negative ions, therefore when GABA wants to silence a brain cell they flood it with ions. As a result, when alcohol enters the brain, it floods it with GABA, resulting in an increased flow of ions silencing brain cells. Alcohol also blocks glutamate, a molecule which generally activates neurons. Siilar to GABA, glutamate is a gatekeeper which allows in positive ions for the brain cells to message each other. So when alcohol is consumed, its essentially turning off two systems within the brain.
People who drink too much alcohol tend develop a dependency because they create a chemical imbalance which is thrown ore out of whack with more alcohol. Too much alcohol can deplete GABA stores and cause neurons in the brain to become hypersensitive to glutamate. Theses effects attribute to some of the symptoms and feelings of withdrawal people experience when they stop drinking. It is always important to remember that alcohol affects people in varying ways, one’s tolerance for alcohol can be contingent on a variety of factors such as age, gender, and size.
At extreme levels of drinking, one can actually cause irreversible damage to their brain. Over time, brain cells can begin to shrivel, resulting in altered motor coordination, temperature regulation, sleep, mood, and memory loss. When blood flow in the brain is altered, brain cells become starved of nutrients and oxygen, leading to cell death. Heavy drinking can also cause the body to release stress hormones which constrict the blood vessels causing blood pressure to elevate.
Alcohol can cause damage to the brain as well as other organs of the body, especially the liver. When the liver is damaged it impairs the organ’s ability to break down alcohol and its toxins. As a result, when the liver cells are improperly functioning they cannot break alcohol-related molecules down causing them to usually end up in the brain, leading to further brain damage.