Dry January | The Effects of Alcohol On Your Body From The Minute You Start Drinking

Do you want to know what happens to your body every hour you drink alcohol?

Now that you’re nearly a week into Dry January, 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.

Have you ever bothered to think about this?

Every time I catch myself feeling nostalgic for the glass of (whatever alcoholic beverage) 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?

Let’s take a little journey.

Effects of alcohol on your body hour by hour
Learn the effects of alcohol on your body

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.

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Within two minutes, I was out on the balcony lighting up and taking a big swig. 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).

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 start to really feel 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.

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).

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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).

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 a recent 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 Started Drinking

Depending on where and with whom I was drinking, this could be the start of what my “zombie mode.” Chemically, the norepinephrine has begun to drop off so the initial drinker’s high is fading. You’re coming down.

Now, instead of being happy, full of life and ideas, jokes, and charm, you’re in 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.

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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

Now that I’ve started my descent into Miss What-Does-It-All-Mean, my broken brain thinks that drinking MORE is the solution. After all, it made me feel good a few hours earlier and perhaps if I drink more, I can forget how rotten I currently feel.

Great plan!

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).

At this point, you’re either throwing up or trying REALLY hard not to. In the height of my drinking days, I had no problem puking, and coming right back outside to my little chair on the balcony and 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?

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The Next 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.

So that’s why alcohol makes us “break 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.

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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. For many of us who have drunk problematically in the past, this became an endless cycle.

Drink, go overboard, 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.

Why Bring This Stuff Up?

 

Do you know how alcohol really effects your body?
A break down of the effects of alcohol on your body as you drink

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.

Even on the nights that didn’t end with embarrassing antics, the recovery time the following day or days after were 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.

Why Do You Drink Too Much?

The majority of us are here, participating in Dry January, and becoming curious about sobriety because we don’t like some aspect of alcohol and its impact on our lives.

We didn’t stop after one or two drinks. We often took it too far and wound up making fools of ourselves, letting someone down, or getting sick. I wouldn’t repeatedly touch a stove that was burning me, so why did I repeatedly drink to get drunk?

I don’t have a perfect answer to this question yet. It will probably take you a while to figure it out as well. My best guess is that I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for a really long time and I was self-medicating. Even though it made me emotionally volatile, it also made me temporarily happy and carefree and I was so desperate for that feeling that no cost was too high. I didn’t know where else to get it.

The biggest mindset shift I made to get sobriety to stick was finally believing the carefree feeling alcohol gave me was false. It was a sunlamp in an endless night.

And you know what? In the right company, my sober self can get just as silly, laugh just as hard, and feel joy without a drop of alcohol. There was a time when I wondered if that would ever be possible, even after I’d stopped drinking.

It is. You’ll get there.

Journal Activity For Today

Today, it’s good to reflect on the role alcohol has played in your life. Why did you drink? What did drinking feel like for you at various points in the night? The good, the bad, and the ugly. What outcome did you think drinking would help you achieve?

Here are some additional questions if you’re feeling stuck:

  • Why do you think you didn’t stop drinking after one or two drinks? 
  • What were hangovers like for you? 
  • Why did you start drinking? How did those reasons change over the years? 
  • Write about a typical night of drinking for you. Where did it go wrong for you?
  • How does drinking alcohol make you feel? (really explore this question and be honest with yourself)

Additional Resources

Here is a clip from Annie Grace’s YouTube Channel This Naked Mind. If you’re not familiar with her work, I highly recommend her. She’s thoughtful, honest, and speaks from a place of genuine understanding.

This clip is about feeling detached when you’re sober and other people around you are still drinking. If that’s how you’re feeling or scared about feeling heading into the weekend, have a listen.

 

 

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Alicia is an American expat, writer living in the Middle East. She chronicles the highs and lows of early sobriety on her site www.soberish.co. To contact, please e-mail contact@soberish.co.

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