What REALLY Happens to Your Body When You Consume Alcohol
From nights out with friends, a glass or two of wine at dinner, or happy hours, alcohol is a hot topic in my practice and often times my biggest challenge. It is one of life’s most desired simple pleasures. Clients are always asking me about how much alcohol they can consume without gaining weight, but there’s so much more to it than just the weight (more on this below). I also get asked often, “do you drink alcohol?”. The answer to this is, yes but not often and you’re about to learn why!
We all know I am a big believer in knowledge is power. The more you know and understand something, the better and wiser you’ll be (or so I hope) when making decisions about what you put into your body. So, what really happens to your body when you consume alcohol?
Let’s start with the basics.
WHAT IS ALCOHOL?
The alcohol we drink is called, ethanol. It’s produced through a process called fermentation. During fermentation yeast digest in certain carbohydrates such as grains, starches and grapes. The fermentation process creates two byproducts: liquid and gas. The gas is carbon dioxide. The liquid is ethanol i.e., the intoxicating ingredient in alcohol beverages.
WHAT FOODS ARE USED TO MAKE ALCOHOL?
Alcohol is made from fruit, grains or potatoes. Here’s a breakdown of which food creates which popular alcohols:
Remember that everything you put into your body, your body wants to utilize for energy and overall health and survival. So, it’s important to know that with every drop that enters your mouth, what happens next?
HOW ALCOHOL TRANSLATES THROUGH THE BODY
MOUTH: Some alcohol is absorbed through the lining of the mouth, but most enters your stomach, where an enzyme called gastric alcohol dehydrogenase begins to digest it. How much alcohol dehydrogenase your body can produce is influenced by your ethnicity and your gender. This is a one, of many, reasons why some people can “tolerate” more alcohol then others. Ladies, take NOTE. The average women (regardless of ethnicity) makes less alcohol dehydrogenase then the average man. As a result, more unmetabolized alcohol will enter her bloodstream. This is why women are more likely to feel the effects of alcohol more quickly than the average man. This is also a reason why women tend to have worse hangovers then men.
The majority of the alcohol you consume is absorbed through the small intestine. From here, it flows through the portal vein straight into your liver.
LIVER: The liver breaks down and filters out harmful substances in the blood and manufacturers enzymes, proteins, and hormones that the body uses to ward off infections. It also converts vitamins, minerals, nutrients and medications into substances our body can use. (Note: do not combine alcohol with medications, antibiotics, blood thinners, antidepressants, sedatives, pain meds, Tylenol and muscle relaxants. This can be very damaging to your liver.) The liver is responsible for cleaning out our blood, producing bile for digestion and storing glycogen for energy.
Once it enters the liver, an enzyme called ADH, metabolizes the alcohol which it will then try to convert into energy by a coenzyme called NAD (NAD is also used to convert glucose from other carbohydrates). It takes the body about 1 hour to process ½ ounce of pure alcohol. The higher someone’s blood content, the longer it takes to process. When someone has too much to drink, the alcohol left unprocessed by the liver, circulates through the bloodstream. The alcohol in the blood effects the heart, brain, and this is how people become intoxicated.
Remember, a healthy liver can process about ½ ounce of pure alcohol in an hour. The rest will flow on to your heart. It’s important to understand that your body can only process a SMALL amount of alcohol within a 60-minute period. So, if you’re the type to drink 2-3 or more drinks within an hour, here’s a BIG NOTE TO SELF to slow your role.
HEART: When alcohol enters your heart, it will reduce the force with which the heart muscle contracts (SCARY!). You will pump out slightly less blood for a few minutes, which makes your blood vessels all over your body relax, and your blood pressure to decrease temporarily. This is part of the reason why people feel more “relaxed” when they sip alcohol. The contractions will return to normal, but the blood vessels will remain relaxed and your blood pressure will stay low for as long as a half hour.
NOTE: This is the process with only ½ ounce of pure alcohol per hour. So, if you’re consuming a lot more than this in an hour, you can now understand how dangerous this can be for your liver, heart and body.
SKIN & BREATH: Alcohol makes your blood vessels expand so warm blood will flow from the center of your body to your skin. This is what makes you turn “pink” when you drink alcohol or maybe feel warmer than usual. Once the alcohol rises to your skin, small amounts will start to come out through our pores, making you smell like alcohol (gross!). NOTE: The liver processes about 90% of alcohol. The other 10% exits through sweat, urine and breathe.
BRAIN: NOTE: Alcohol is a depressant, not a mood enhancer. It is known to be the most widely used natural relaxant. When the alcohol reaches your brain, it slows down the transmission impulses between your nerve cells that control your ability to move and think properly. This is where people tend to loosen up, feel more relaxed but also, make poor (ah hem, dietary) decisions.
THE END: The cycle will continue until you stop drinking. So, the more drinks you have, the more your liver must produce enough enzymes to metabolize. So, if you’re drinking beyond what your body can process in 1 session, alcohol will keep circulating through your body for many hours putting a lot of stress on your stomach, liver, heart, blood vessels, and pretty much every muscle and organ in your body. Additionally, it creates toxic build up, and consumption of unwanted empty calories into your system (more on this below).
ALCOHOL AND YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
As we learned above, alcohol can damage your liver, cardiovascular, and digestive system. But it also affects your immune system. It’s important to remember this, every.single.time. you take a sip of alcohol. If you’re drinking a lot, and often, understand that the effects of excessive drinking can and will catch up to you. Hello, preventative health!!