Ever Wondered?

Ever Wondered?

How alcohol permeates your system

April 24, 2012

You wake up after a night of drinking, and immediately groan. Your head is aching. It feels like alcohol is still seeping through your pores. The heavy feeling of your sweaty skin rivals the sticky surface of the bar that you eventually abandoned last night — the question facing you and the establishments’ owners is the same: how does alcohol manage to permeate every available surface?

Flashback 12 hours. You take your first sip of beer. Like any good party, it takes a bit for things to pick up. The alcohol doesn’t start to affect you for a good 20 minutes or so. Of course, this grace period also depends on what’s already sitting in your stomach at the time: if it’s crowded with food, it’ll take longer. a sentiment that also likely applied to the timeframe in which you were able to acquire said beer from the busy bar in the first place.

As the alcohol molecules move through your digestive system, they permeate the water in all other parts of your body. It gets into blood cells, muscle fibers, and neurons. Fat cells are exempt though. Therein lies the reason why alcohol affects women and men differently. Men have more muscle, so they have more cells to absorb the alcohol, and make it more diluted. Women tend to carry more fat, so the alcohol is more concentrated since fewer cells can absorb it. The same logic applies to size — the bigger the person, the more alcohol needed to achieve the same effects.

Now, the alcohol has permeated all of your cells. Your skin is releasing small amounts of it through sweat. It’s reached your kidneys, so it’s also released in your urine. As you breathe, about 5 percent of the alcohol you consumed is expelled from your lungs And (most importantly), it’s made its way to your brain.

In your brain, alcohol acts like the crowd at the party; it inhibits normal movement and blocks the neural pathways, thus preventing neurons from firing at each other as they normally would. As the concentration of alcohol increases, it mimics the crowd at a bar, ever expanding to fill the entire venue— first, the cerebellum Then the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus,

Finally, it hits the medulla. Think of it as the final straw, the people dancing on the fire escape that triggers the bouncer to start kicking people out. If too much alcohol reaches the medulla, it inhibits the necessary, involuntary processes of the heart beating and breathing. That’s the signal that the party is probably over, possibly for good.

The alcohol then makes its way to the liver, where it is oxidized and thus changed into something non-toxic, and eventually excreted. It’s sort of like when your buzz wears off enough to realize that the cutie you’re dancing with is actually not as attractive as you assumed, and it’s time to go home.

About the Author

Susan E. Matthews

Susan E. Matthews is trading the hills of New Hampshire for New York City, as she comes to SHERP straight after graduating from Dartmouth College. As an environmental studies major, she worked in a biogeochemistry lab and traveled through southern Africa. She found her true passion, however, in writing for and ultimately being editor-in-chief of Dartmouth’s daily paper. SHERP provides a lovely solution to bridging her two interests, and she can’t wait to get back to the reporting side of journalism. Follow her on Twitter @_susanematthews


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