Within minutes of taking your first sip, alcohol enters your bloodstream through your stomach wall and is circulated to every part of your body. This includes your heart, liver and brain, as well as your nervous system.
If you have one or two drinks, you may find you become more talkative and feel more cheerful and relaxed. But drink a couple more and you'll take longer to react, may misjudge situations and start slurring your words. You might also have difficulty walking and find it tricky to coordinate your movements.
So what’s happening to your mind and body? Read below to find out more.
Alcohol is a depressant. Drink too much and your brain will have difficulty processing information. This means you may have trouble with:
- judgement and self-control
- vision and hearing
- talking and walking
- remembering things
Alcohol can make you act differently to how you normally would. You might not make the best decisions and take risks, such as having unprotected sex.
Drinking heavily over a long time can severely affect your mental health. Alcohol alters the chemistry in your brain and can increase your risk of getting anxiety and depression, and feeling suicidal.
If you’re a heavy drinker, stopping suddenly can lead to hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that don’t exist). In some people who drink very heavily for many years, a mental health condition called alcoholic psychosis can develop. This is where the person can become paranoid and experience hallucinations.
Drinking too much alcohol also increases your risk of developing dementia in later life.
If you drink regularly, it can become addictive and you might find that you’re experiencing cravings and find it difficult to go without a drink. For more information see our article on alcohol dependence.
In the short term, you'll feel the effects of alcohol on your body in the form of a hangover. The morning after an evening of heavy drinking, chances are you can expect to have one. It's nature’s way of telling you that you've overindulged.
Alcoholic drinks contain ethanol – a toxic chemical. It takes time for your body to turn the ethanol into a less toxic substance in your body. Symptoms of a hangover are caused by the combined effects of alcohol and its breakdown products on your body and mind. Typical symptoms include:
- feeling thirsty
- feeling or being sick
- feeling sensitive to bright lights
- indigestion and diarrhoea
- feeling exhausted
Worse still, you might not even be able to remember all of the night before because alcohol can cause memory loss.
While alcohol affects virtually all of your body systems, your liver is most affected. Your liver filters and cleans your blood and it takes about an hour to clear one unit of alcohol from your bloodstream. This is the most your liver can handle at one time, so if you're drinking quickly, your liver has to work harder.
Over time, alcohol damages your liver. If you regularly drink too much, you're at risk of developing a range of alcoholic liver diseases. These include:
The process is silent so you won't be aware of the damage, but if you develop liver disease, the symptoms can come on suddenly. And it can be life-threatening.
The good news is if you cut down or stop drinking in the early stages of liver disease, your liver may well recover. But if you continue to drink it may completely fail.
Did you know?
- About nine in 10 people who regularly drink get a fatty liver and most aren't aware of the damage done.
- In 2013, 64 percent of all alcohol-related deaths in England were caused by alcoholic liver disease.
- Women who regularly drink are more at risk of developing liver disease than men because their bodies aren't able to process alcohol as well.
Alcohol makes your heart beat faster, which affects how well it pumps blood around your body. If you regularly drink too much alcohol – particularly if you 'binge drink' – it can raise your blood pressure too.
Regularly drinking too much alcohol can damage your heart and increase your risk of getting heart disease or having a stroke. It can also lead to an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia). For more information about these effects of alcohol, see our article, How alcohol affects your heart.
Did you know?
- Men who regularly drink more than eight units of alcohol a day (double the recommended amount) nearly double their risk of coronary heart disease.
- Women who regularly drink more than six units of alcohol a day (also double the recommended amount) are slightly more likely to develop coronary heart disease.
- There's evidence that alcohol may reduce the risk of certain cardiovascular diseases. But before you pour another drink, these effects are limited to certain groups of people (men over 40 and postmenopausal women) who only drink a small amount of alcohol.
If you drink just three units of alcohol a day, you increase your risk of developing many types of cancer, including cancers of the:
For more information about alcohol and your risk of cancer see our article, Cut the booze to slash your cancer risk.
Did you know?
- Alcohol is linked to around 37,000 hospital admissions for cancer in the UK each year.
- All types of alcoholic drink increase the risk of cancer, even red wine. It’s the alcohol that causes damage, not the type of drink it’s in.
Part of your body Detail Did you know? Digestive system
Alcohol irritates your stomach. It increases the amount of acid your stomach produces, which can cause inflammation of its lining. You may get indigestion and heartburn, be sick, have a stomach ache and diarrhoea
Alcohol can also damage your pancreas. If you drink too much, it can lead to acute (short-lasting) or chronic (long-lasting) pancreatitis.
- Chronic pancreatitis is 40 to 50-times more common in people who are heavy drinkers and drink long term.
- The most common cause of acute pancreatitis worldwide is alcohol.
Nervous system Alcohol acts on nerve cells throughout your body. It slows down the speed at which your nerves can send messages to each other. If you regularly drink a lot of alcohol, it can lead to nerve and brain damage, resulting in memory problems, dementia and damage to small nerve endings.
- Regular, heavy alcohol use can cause a lack of vitamin B1. If you don't get treatment, it can lead to permanent memory loss.
- Research now shows that even a couple of days of binge drinking can start to kill off your brain cells. Previously it was thought you'd have to drink continuously for long periods of time to get this type of damage.
Drinking moderate levels of alcohol can increase your sexual desire. But drink too much and its effects on the nervous system can make it difficult for men to achieve or maintain an erection (often called ‘brewer’s droop’).
Regularly drinking more than the daily recommended amount is known to affect fertility in both men and women.
- In women, alcohol can disrupt ovulation which makes it harder to conceive. In men, alcohol can reduce sperm production.
It’s not possible to be precise about how much is safe for individual men and women to drink. Current guidelines, however, recommend:
- men shouldn't regularly drink more than three or four units a day
- women shouldn't regularly drink more than two or three units a day
Although ‘regularly’ means every day or most days of the week, it’s a good idea to have at least two alcohol-free days a week so you don’t go over the limits. Over a week, men shouldn’t have more than 21 units and women shouldn’t have more than 14 units.
This doesn’t mean you can save up all the ‘allowance’ for a weekend binge. A drinking binge is generally defined as drinking double the daily recommended units in one session. If you drink too much in a short space of time, the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream can become dangerously high. This can lead to alcohol poisoning and you may need hospital admission.
If you’re struggling to keep within your limits, don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Talking to a close friend, a support group or your GP can help you understand your drinking habits and find ways to cut down how much you drink. For more information about how to cut down on drinking see our article, Cutting back or quitting drinking.
- Alcohol – problem drinking. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. www.cks.nice.org.uk, published April 2015
- Map of Medicine. Alcohol dependence, and liver disease. International View. London: Map of Medicine; 2015 (Issue and 3)
- Zakhari S. Overview: how is alcohol metabolized by the body? Alcohol Research & Health 2006; 29(4):245–54
- Alcohol and depression. Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, published August 2015
- Effects of blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, published 17 August 2015
- Statistics on alcohol. England, 2015. Health and Social Care Information Centre. www.hscic.gov.uk, published 25 June 2015
- Healthy living. Oxford Handbook of General Practice (Online). Oxford Medical Online. www.oxfordmedicine.com, published April 2014
- Alcohol-related psychosis. Medscape. www.emedicine.medscape.com, published 29 October 2013
- Dementia, disability and frailty in later life – mid-life approaches to delay or prevent onset. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), October 2015. www.nice.org.uk
- Fact sheets – alcohol use and your health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, accessed 7 November 2014
- Karadayian AG, Cutrera RA. Alcohol hangover: type and time-extension of motor function impairments. Behav Brain Res 2013; 15(247):165–73. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2013.03.037.
- Dealing with a hangover. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, published March 2015
- Alcohol-use disorder. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 18 August 2015
- Alcoholic liver disease. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, accessed 20 October 2014
- Alcohol and the heart. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, published September 2013
- Alcohol-use disorders: preventing harmful drinking. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2010. www.nice.org.uk
- Statistics on alcohol: England, 2013. Office for National Statistics. www.hscic.gov.uk, published 30 May 2013
- Alcohol and cancer. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, published April 2015
- Is alcohol harming your stomach? Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, published April 2015
- Chronic pancreatitis. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 17 November 2014
- Acute pancreatitis. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 2 February 2015
- Madras B, Kuhar M. The effects of drug abuse on the human nervous system. Oxford: Elsevier; 2014
- Alcohol-related problems. Patientplus. www.patient.info/patientplus, published 8 April 2015
- Erectile dysfunction. Patientplus. www.patient.info/patientplus, accessed 12 April 2013
- Fertility problems. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), October 2014. www.nice.org.uk
- Infertility. Medscape. www.emedicine.medscape.com, published 30 March 2015
- Male factor infertility. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, accessed 5 December 2014
We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.
Let us know what you think using our short feedback form Ask us a question
Reviewed by Alice Rossiter, Bupa Health Content Team, December 2015.
About our health information
At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.
Information StandardWe are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
What our readers say about us
But don't just take our word for it; here's some feedback from our readers.
“Simple and easy to use website - not alarming, just helpful.”
“It’s informative but not too detailed. I like that it’s factual and realistic about the conditions and the procedures involved. It’s also easy to navigate to areas that you specifically want without having to read all the information.”
“Good information, easy to find, trustworthy.”
Meet the team
Head of health content and clinical engagement
- Dylan Merkett – Lead Editor – UK Customer
- Nick Ridgman – Lead Editor – UK Health and Care Services
- Natalie Heaton – Specialist Editor – User Experience
- Pippa Coulter – Specialist Editor – Content Library
- Alice Rossiter – Specialist Editor – Insights
- Laura Blanks – Specialist Editor – Quality
- Michelle Harrison – Editorial Assistant
Our core principles
All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.
In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.
We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.
We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.
Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.
The Information Standard certification scheme
You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.
It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.
Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information. Bupa shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of Bupa.
British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards
We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.
If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: email@example.com. Or you can write to us:
Health Content Team
15-19 Bloomsbury Way