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Alcohol affects every organ

Sun 11 Dec 2022. Katherine Latham for The Guardian

As the party season kicks in, so will the effects of having one too many. Here are the sobering facts behind hangovers and tactics that might help you avoid them

“Alcohol is a ‘dirty drug’,” says Emily Palmer, a researcher at Imperial College London, who studies hangovers. “It impacts multiple systems in the brain.”

Scientists are not exactly sure what is going on in our bodies during a hangover, but they do know it is caused by a variety of biochemical and neurochemical changes. “It doesn’t just affect the liver or the brain,” says Palmer, “it affects almost every organ.” This Christmas, many of us will be celebrating with a drink or two or three. So is it possible to get through the morning after the night before unscathed?

The slippery slope

“You have your first drink and a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid – or Gaba – is released in the brain,” says Rayyan Zafar, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London and researcher for the charity Drug Science.

The brain just shuts down. That’s why people call alcohol a depressant. Rayyan Zafar, Imperial College London

“Gaba slows the brain,” he continues. “It works on receptors in the cortex, specifically parts involved in the thinking processes and control.”


Gaba reduces a nerve cell’s ability to send and receive chemical messages throughout the central nervous system. So, for the first one to three drinks, as Gaba is released you feel relaxed, says Zafar.


At the same time, you get a rush of dopamine. “You feel good, you feel relaxed, and you want more,” says Zafar. But as you continue to drink the alcohol binds to glutamate receptors in the brain – which are important for memory formation. Their electrical activity is suppressed, “essentially blocking the formation of memories,” says Zafar.


The alcohol moves from your cortex, which controls behaviour, to the cerebellum, which is in charge of movement, motor coordination and balance.


Next, alcohol intoxication hits the medulla, right in the middle of the brain. It controls autonomic systems including heartbeat, breathing and blood pressure. “The brain just shuts down,” says Zafar. “That’s why people call alcohol a depressant; not because it makes you feel depressed, but because it depresses the whole central nervous system.” Can I get drunk on non-alcoholic beer?

“Probably not,” reassures Zafar. “Say the average pint of beer is 5% alcohol, you’d need to have 10 0.5% low-alcoholic beers to have the same effect as a pint. I don’t think your body would be able to hold on to that much liquid.”


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