Once you take a sip of the drink, the alcohol lands in your stomach and travels to the intestinal tract, where it is absorbed into your bloodstream. It then travels through your heart and into your brain where it crosses the blood-brain barrier and enters the brain tissue proper.
Alcohol acts as a depressant on your central nervous system, inhibiting neurological impulses needed for normal brain function. It interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, altering both your mood and your behavior.
Alcohol affects all parts of the brain: the frontal cortex, which controls judgment, decision-making, and risky behavior; the midbrain and limbic system, where feelings of pleasure are triggered; and the motor cortex, sensory cortex, and visual cortex, which all control physical coordination and movement, according to the Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership.
“When we look at the effects of alcohol, we distinguish between acute effects and chronic effects,” says Lara Ray, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychology and biobehavioral neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles and a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute. “With the acute effects [in a single drinking episode], we look at alcohol intoxication – loss of inhibition and loss of coordination. Most people find the intoxicating effect quite pleasant. They feel more sociable, more talkative, in a better mood. It’s dose-dependent – effects are determined by how much and how quickly an individual drinks. And when someone stops drinking, they feel the sedative effects, they feel sluggish.
Meanwhile, chronic heavy drinking – eight or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more drinks a week for men – has physical and psychological consequences. “The brain starts needing more and more to get the same effect,” says Ray. “If you (previously) had a buzz after drinking half a bottle of wine, you start craving a full bottle. You start looking for it, stalking it – when you open the fridge, everything you look, it’s alcohol.
“And in the brain, we see an acceleration of cognitive aging,” she says. “Memory, concentration and executive function [self-regulation and organization] the deficits are all exacerbated by heavy alcohol consumption. In the body, we see elevations in triglycerides and liver enzymes. The brain and liver are the main centers of the body where the effects of heavy alcohol consumption are found.
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