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Drink, Drank, Drunk: The Unpleasant Side Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol lifts us high and crashes us down, usually by way of terrible side effects like temporary vertigo (aka “the spins”) and what I like to call selective memory (aka blackouts, brownouts, or “I did what last night?!”). Almost everyone who drinks has experienced at least one of the discomforting and embarrassing side effects of alcohol. But how do they happen in the first place?

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Oh, alcohol. You’re such a good idea … until you’re not. You’re a fabulous ice breaker, making acquaintances best friends and lumping reserved and gregarious people alike into one cheerful, lively crowd. But too much of you quickly turns any drinker from the life of the party into a stumbling disaster – thanks to some of the not-so-fun side effects of alcohol. You bring a shy girl out of her shell, and then bring her to the ground a few shots later, as she asks some poor stranger nearby why the room is spinning so nauseatingly. (Hypothetical situation, of course.)

What causes the spins?
Drinking on an empty stomach, or drinking too much in a short amount of time, increases the likelihood of getting the spins, a condition in which the room seems to be spinning around you. It tends to happen after you’ve crawled into bed (or onto your friend’s couch or a random floor) and are trying to sleep. As soon as you close your eyes, you feel like everything around you is moving at a dizzying speed. Opening your eyes only verifies this sensation, even though you haven’t moved an inch. Often at this point, the trash can or large pot that someone’s thoughtfully placed next to you becomes the receptacle for your stomach’s holdings.

Temporary vertigo sets in when your body loses its ability to transmit and receive information correctly. Alcohol disrupts sensory and motor input throughout the body, including those oh-so-necessary signals from your inner ear to your eyes and brain that make balance possible. (It also affects the inner-ear signals that interpret sound, which is why drunk people tend to yell during their conversations.) When you try to sleep, the inner ear’s alcohol-addled nerve impulses can’t successfully tell your eyes that you’re lying down. The eyes then alert the brain that the body’s in motion. The room looks like it’s spinning because alcohol’s tricked the brain into thinking that you’re spinning.

Luckily, there’s a way out of the spins: open your eyes and concentrate on something that’s not moving, or put your foot or hand on something stable, like the ground or a nightstand. The only way out of the spins is to assure the brain that you’re anchored.

Why does memory get hazy (or nonexistent)?
It’s never fun to wake up after a night of drinking and realize that your memories of it are hazy. And if you find out you said or did something truly mortifying, the agony (otherwise known as drinker’s remorse) can last longer and be more severe than the worst hangover. Like the spins, alcohol-related anterograde amnesia—the official term for blacking out or forgetting parts of the night while drinking—is caused by too much alcohol in a short amount of time. A survey performed at Duke University Medical Center and published in 2003 showed that 40 percent of students reported blacking out at least once in the preceding year. Many drinkers experience some form of this kind of amnesia (there are different grades, ranging from hazy recollection to absolutely no memory at all) at least once, though there’s evidence that shows it affects younger adults more significantly.

In order to learn anything new, or to turn short-term memories into long-term ones, the brain creates synapses. Synaptic connections are formed at lightning speed during our formative years, and then sort of taper off after we hit twenty-one. (We can still learn new things after that age, but not as quickly.) Depending on how much you’ve had to drink, alcohol can make forming these synapses either difficult or altogether impossible.

The information the brain pulls from the night to turn it into tomorrow’s memories while you sleep isn’t coded correctly after alcohol’s taken hold. If your brain’s still able to somewhat process situational context, it’s possible the memory might get triggered the next day. (“Dude, remember when you tried to do a cartwheel off the kitchen table?” “Oh, right …”) But if there’s too much alcohol in your system, your brain is too mixed up to keep hold of any new information.

Drink with your brain.
It’s a surprisingly fast journey from buzzed to drunk, especially when you do things that speed up that journey even more, like drink on an empty stomach. When you start your night with a helpful balance of carbs, protein, and fat, your stomach has something to feast on other than alcohol, meaning that it won’t get absorbed into the bloodstream—and lead to intoxication—as quickly. Even mixing alcohol with juice, soda, or some other caloric beverage slows the process, but just make sure it’s not sugar- or calorie-free: a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Medicine showed that alcohol mixed with diet beverages left the stomach significantly more quickly than drinks with regular mixers did.

That’s just one way to curb your body’s potential for physically freaking out or blocking out certain events from your memory. The other is to drink less, but because alcohol stimulates the brain’s reward center, that’s not always so easy. (That’s why the journey from buzzed to drunk isn’t just fast—it’s fun, too.) If you’re going to drink, it’s best to compensate for every glass of alcohol with a full glass of water, though that’s an easy rule to forget as the night goes on. But it’s one we’d do well to remember, especially if we want to remember the night itself.

Photo source: Cillian Storm (cc)

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