The Biology of Getting Drunk

Image from The Hangover courtesy of Film Drunk

It’s something we humans have been doing for ages, and it goes by many names: getting inebriated, plastered, wasted, housed, trashed, canned, trash-canned, and of course drunk, or, as it’s often spelled in text messages, durnkk.  It turns out the most correct term though is “intoxication”, as booze—any kind, really, not just Smirinoff Ice—is literally toxic.

Alcohol’s active ingredient is ethanol, a toxin that produces effects in your body that can be good, not good, and very very bad, and usually in that order.  If you’re like us, you wake up after a big night and think “What the F just happened?”  We understand you’re probably referring to why there’s a road cone in your bed and your foot is in a bag of Lay’s KC  Masterpiece, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume you actually mean “WTF just happened inside my brain on a molecular level with regard to the consumption of ethanol-based alcohol”.

Indeed it all starts with ethanol.  Well, technically it starts with a 30-pack purchased at the Arco, but ethanol is where things start to get screwy.  As you drink, ethanol is absorbed into your blood stream and goes to work on your brain.  Through a variety of chemical interactions that would require many more pages and nearly $150,000 worth of PhD to explain, the ethanol reduces the effect of an excitatory neurotransmitter known as glutamate.  If you went cross-eyed reading “excitatory neurotransmitter”, don’t worry.  That’s normal.

In layman’s terms, glutamate works to keep your brain up to speed: maintaining alertness, reactions, and it turns out, memory-making.  When ethanol shows up and punches glutamate in the face, those things are adversely affected, resulting in subdued coordination, slurred speech, pants removal, etc.  Moreover, the ethanol works on parts of the brain associated with planning, resulting in impaired decisions, such as a thirty-five dollar order at Del Taco.

Now, we can all agree alcohol in moderate doses is a good thing.  It’s a relaxant, and can produce feelings of euphoria, reduced inhibition, and a perceived enhancement of dance moves and joke telling, all of which are big positives for the most part.

But alcohol is a terribly fickle mistress.  There’s a fine line to be walked when it comes to drinking, and if it’s crossed, it quickly goes from The Good to The Bad, and then on to The Ugly.  Literally.

You see, some of that glutamate-punching goes down in the parts of your brain that control judgment and pleasure-seeking.   This is where excess drinking leads to the beer-goggle effect, often referred to later as “regret”.  As your cognitive ability decreases and your pleasure-seeking increases, there comes a point where your brain declares itself King of Awesometime and Mayor of Pleasuretown, and decides that the woman/manatee sitting at the bar with the apple martini will do admirably.   Luckily for you, ethanol has already had its way with the memory centers of your brain, so you won’t recall having your way with sea beastie.  It’s also why in the morning, when you put your brain in front of the panel and ask it what in Jesus H. Fuckery it was thinking, it answers “I seriously have no idea.”

And lastly, there’s the aftermath, and we’re not talking about an awkward breakfast.  Alcohol dehydrates you.  This ain’t such a bad thing when you’re drinking, but it turns out to be a face-melting bitch come morning.   Dehydration, coupled with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), a vitamin B12 deficiency, and acetaldehyde toxins leftover from metabolizing that booze likely all have a hand in making you want to beg for the sweet embrace of death rather than endure another moment of “veisalgia”:  also known as a hangover.

So there you have it, the biological effects of your Saturday night.  On a parting note, try this next time you’re hammered… right before bed, pound a pint glass of water, no ice.  Ideally make it two.  Your hangover will be greatly diminished, if not absent.   Thanks us later.

Images from The Hangover courtesy of Film Drunk.


  • J.R. McQuaid

    I can’t wait for the second Hangover movie!

  • Kemo

    “Alcohol’s active ingredient is ethanol.”
    Not written by somebody who knows his chemistry. It’s like saying “Car is a part of Ford Dodge.”

  • Kemo’s Mama

    Kemo… here he’s using the term “alcohol” as a general term for beverages containing alcohol… specifically ethanol alcohol.

    When someone says at 3am “anyone know where we can purchase some alcohol?” they are not referring to pure ethanol…

    You dork… go get a drink… and you know what I mean. Dork.

  • Wylo

    I meant “alcohol” in the general sense of booze: wine, beer, spirits are commonly referred to as “alcohol”. I did not mean a specific chemical alcohol, as there are many: methyl, isopropyl, ethanol, etc. Sorry for any confusion, but you’re not arguing knowledge, you’re arguing semantics.

  • kemo is a bitch

    haha kemo ur an idiot!

  • bunninmonkey

    Also, pop a B vitamin pill with the glass or 2 of water before bed (and 1m before you go out, if it’s a planned night out) for reduced hangovers.

    Milk thistle the day after also helps…


  • mctrap

    When you get drunk what your are doing to the brain at that moment is dis-inhibiting the cerebral cortex. In other words the animal part of the brain (limbic region)is allowed to take over and that’s why you are more likely to do stupid things. The inhibition process that normally comes from the cortex gets compromised and the animal brain is free to come out and have its own party. Anyone not understanding that we are just animals too, should just observe someone who is drunk while you remain sober. And anyone who wants to understand animal behavior should study neuroscience. Yes, its truly all about the chemicals and their reactions inside out brain. Happy neurotransmiting!

  • sara

    so i am so lucky that even if i drink enormous amounts of alkohol, i NEVER have a hangover the next day .. am i just lucky or does my body absorb the alkohol faster`?