More than half of us drink regularly in social settings, and I doubt that statistic will drop anytime soon, what with the recent study kindly informing us that we all tend to drink more than we think we do. There is plenty of research out there proving that a couple beers here and there can actually do you some good — key words being "a couple" — yet we've also been warned about the negative effects of alcohol. It messes with your digestive system, puts strain on the heart, and screws up the relationship you've got with your liver.
But you've probably heard enough about all that. There is more interesting terrain to cover when it comes to booze. Because it's such a vital part of our culture and social life, countless scientists and researchers have gone to great lengths to figure out exactly what happens in the brain and the body when we drink alcohol, and some of what they've found is pretty fascinating. Learning more about it can help us in the long run; we can prepare better for a night out knowing what symptoms lie ahead, and we can even learn how to handle our hangovers a little better. Knowledge is power, right?
Here are seven weird things that happen to your body when you drink alcohol.
1. You're More Likely To Have Nightmares
Booze wrecks a little something called sleep homeostasis, which is the process in your body that's in charge of sleep. You might think alcohol helps you fall asleep — after all, it is called a somnogen, or a sleep inducer — but the journal Alcohol published research that shows alcohol can mess with you in the middle of the night, even after you've fallen asleep.
It overstimulates REM sleep, which is exactly the kind of slumber where nightmares live and breathe. After all those cocktails you smashed at your cousin's wedding, don't be surprised if you jolt awake in a cold sweat, still thinking you're being chased by a giant evil crab.
2. Everything Gets Swollen
I hate this one — you wake up with bags under your eyes and fingers so fat you need to get your rings cut off. It's a very common side effect of drinking, and it's due to the dehydration. When you drink, the sodium levels in your body spike because the hormone that regulates urine production is being suppressed. Then, during the recovery process, the extra sodium makes you retain more fluids than normal.
The blood vessels in your face enlarge, leading to puffy cheeks; your belly might protrude a little bit due to the bloating, and you might get expanded ankles as well. All this can occur from just one night of moderate drinking, but it's nothing that can't be remedied with lots of water and even more patience.
3. You're More Likely To Have A Panic Attack
After the big night is over and you're nursing a gnarly hangover, complete with nausea and a splitting headache, you might be unexpectedly hit with a panic attack, especially if you already suffer from an anxiety disorder. As those gin and tonics leave your system, your blood sugar quickly drops because all your energy is channeled to getting rid of the booze, and everything becomes inflamed.
This inflammation is linked to mood changes and a spike in chemicals that can negatively affect your nervous system. Low blood sugar is also known to cause otherwise unexplained feelings of nervousness. Combine all that, and you've got a recipe for a panic attack on your hands. Stay calm and take care of yourself, though, and you'll come out on the other side just fine.
4. You Sweat More
We've covered the whole dehydration thing that takes place after a few drinks, and this can have an effect on your body's ability to maintain a normal internal temperature as well. When there's not enough fluid in your system, heat gets trapped inside and your core temperature rises. The blood vessels near the surface of the skin dilate and you're left with a glisten — and possibly redness.
The hangover stage could give you pit stains too, as there's a buildup of acetaldehyde toxicity and your body isn't working at its most optimal level in order to rid you of it. Cue the sticky sweat that accompanies you the morning after, especially when you wake up.
5. You Could Get "Wet Brain"
More legitimately known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, this is a type of brain damage caused by a deficiency of thiamine, aka vitamin B1. Consuming large amounts of alcohol robs you of the chance to properly absorb thiamine, kills white matter in the brain, and significantly elevates the level of glucose in your blood, all of which result in feeling mentally impaired. Symptoms include hallucination, lack of muscle coordination, and memory loss.
The scariest part is that "wet brain" doesn't take a long time to develop — it pops up after a huge influx of glucose hits the brain. Cognitive abilities suddenly decline without any warning. Before you freak out and cancel your weekend plans, know this syndrome occurs to the folks out there drinking heavily and not eating well enough to provide themselves with the proper vitamins.
6. You Perceive Others' Actions As More Intentional
The reasoning part of your brain is weakened after a few drinks, so you lose the ability to carefully sift through all the motivations behind your friends' actions. Instead of avoiding your "natural intentionality bias," you automatically assume, without any sensible analysis, that the person in front of you deliberately spilled their water all over the bar.
In the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers performed in a study in which a group of men voluntarily drank some alcohol after not eating for three hours, and when asked to determine whether someone's ambiguous actions were deliberate, accidental, or vague, almost all of them judged the occurrence to be very intentional. Obviously, this might help explain some societal problems alcohol plays a role in — though it certainly doesn't excuse them.
7. Your Brain Receives More Oxygen
Dr. Sam Zakhari, Senior Vice President of the Distilled Spirits Council, says drinking in moderation can actually be of benefit to your brain — it may help prevent stroke, stop cognitive decline, and stimulate intellectual function. Your noggin is capable of receiving more oxygen when the blood thins out a little bit, which is precisely what a healthy amount of Pinot Noir does. Studies show that women with Alzheimer's disease who modestly drink score higher on cognitive functioning tests than their counterparts who either say no to booze or say yes way too often.
Eighty percent of strokes are a result of a clot stopping the flow of blood to the brain, and moderate drinking can reduce the risk of this happening, according to Dr. Zakhari. The best part is, it doesn't even matter what kind of alcohol you enjoy for your brain to be positively affected — as long as you're not bingeing.
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