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10 weird things you might not know alcoholic drinks are doing to your body

Wednesday 27 September 2017

A young woman sits with a group of friends outside, drink in hand.
Do you really know what alcohol is doing in your body?

We all know that drinking alcohol to excess isn’t really part of a healthy lifestyle. Drinking more than the recommended guidelines can put you at risk of developing serious diseases, affect your brain health and make you prone to alcohol-related accidents.

You know about alcohol poisoning, hangovers and brain damage, but did you know about the other ways alcoholic drinks can affect your body?

1. Congeners make your hangover worse

Scientific study of hangovers is still ongoing, but one thing we do know is that ‘congeners’ in alcohol can contribute to making your hangover worse.

Congeners are chemicals that occur naturally during the distilling and fermentation processes of alcohol creation and are found in greater amounts in darker coloured drinks, like red wine, bourbon and brandy. Congeners irritate blood vessels and tissues in your brain, which can make your hangover worse.

2. Sulphites trigger allergies and asthma

Sulphites are a mineral which occur naturally in a lot of foods and drinks, and can also be added as a preservative to stop spoilage and preserve colour. Some people are sensitive to sulphites, experiencing allergic reactions ranging from mild hay fever-like symptoms to serious anaphylactic reactions when they eat or drink them. People with asthma can also find that foods and drinks with high sulphite levels can trigger the condition.

Alcoholic drinks like wine and cider, and drinks you might mix with alcohol like concentrated fruit drinks and bottled lemon or lime juices, can contain high levels sulphites. If you’re feeling particularly sneezy, stuffy, wheezy or itchy after a night drinking, sulphites might be to blame.

A young woman sits on the couch, water in hand, feeling terrible from a hangover.

3. Alcohol makes you sleep badly and gives you nightmares

You might think that alcohol makes you sleep better because it makes you drowsy, but it turns out alcohol actually lessens your sleep quality.

Alcohol disrupts your sleep cycle, and can interfere with your REM sleep. REM sleep is the sleep stage where you’ll often have vivid dreams or nightmares, which means when alcohol affects your REM it can bring on bad dreams.

4. Your hangover can trigger anxiety

As your body gets alcohol out of your system, your blood sugar levels drop, which actually stresses your brain out. This can lead to feelings of anxiousness and worry, and can be especially triggering if you have an anxiety disorder.

Lots of people drink to relax and rid themselves of worries or anxiety for a few hours, but if your hangover comes with a hefty dose of anxiousness, you might need to rethink this coping mechanism.  

5. Drinking alcohol raises your risk of mouth, throat, larynx and oesophagus cancer

Many people know that drinking alcohol can raise your risk of cancers like liver, breast and bowel cancer. But it can also increase your chances of developing cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx or oesophagus.

Ethanol, which is what alcohol is made of, isn’t carcinogenic in itself, but when your body metabolises it, it turns into acetaldehyde, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists as a Group 1 carcinogen to humans.

For further reading, Cancer Research UK has information about how alcohol causes cancer.  

6. Alcohol absorbs, but doesn’t digest

Did you know you don’t actually digest alcohol when you drink it? Instead, once hitting your stomach, it absorbs straight into your bloodstream.

The rate at which your body absorbs alcohol depends on a number of factors, including your weight and body type and how much food is already in your stomach. This is why it’s important to eat a meal before you start drinking, even though alcohol won’t be digested with your food.

7. It stops you from creating memories (rather than making you forget)

If you’ve ever drunk so much that you’ve ‘blacked out’ and woken up the next day not knowing what you did the night before, you might think that the alcohol has made you forget what happened.

But alcohol doesn’t make your brain forget the memories; it impedes its abilities to make new memories while you’re drunk. It particularly affects your ability to make new long-term memories, which means you might “remember” what’s going on in the short-term while you’re drinking, like remembering that your friend has just arrived at the party, but those memories might not be there in the morning when they haven’t translated across to your long-term memory.

8. Alcohol can cause inflammation of your stomach lining

Ever get diarrhoea with your hangover? Yep, you can blame alcohol for that one, too. Alcohol makes your stomach produce more acid, which can cause your stomach lining to become inflamed, a condition called gastritis.

A young woman holds a warm glass of mulled wine while she stands outside rugged up for the cold.

9. Alcohol actually makes you colder

Alcohol is a ‘vasodilator’, which means it opens up your blood vessels, including the small capillaries under the surface of your skin. This is why you might feel warm when you’ve been drinking, because more of your blood has come to the surface of your body. But this also means that your body’s core temperature drops as the warm blood moves away, so even though you’re feeling warm, your body is actually getting colder.

10. Drinking makes you crave junk food

There are a number of reasons why you might crave salty or fatty foods when you’ve been drinking. Going back to gastritis from a few points ago, fatty foods will line your stomach, protecting it from the excess acid and making you feel less ill.

You’re also likely to be dehydrated if you’ve been drinking, because alcohol is a diuretic and makes you pee a lot. You might crave salty foods which will replenish your body’s electrolytes and help your body store lost water.

Scientists also think there might be a link to the way alcohol acts on your brain and your desire to eat. Their hypothesis is that alcohol activates the brain cells that normally tell you you’re hungry, making you want food whether you need it or not.

Last updated: 27 September 2017