Alcohol is the most commonly consumed mind-altering substance in the world. Unlike other drugs, its consumption is legal. As a result, it is the most widely served mind-altering substance served in social events1,2.
Alcohol is so widely used and readily available beverage that many people do not realize it is a drug with well-known pharmacology. It is a potent central nervous system (CNS) depressant, quite like opiates and barbiturates.
However, people often become excited after moderate alcohol consumption, as inhibitory neurons are more sensitive to alcohol. However, at higher dosages, it suppresses all brain activities.
Alcohol can also provide some energy. However, the body cannot store that energy. Therefore, it will cause a mild anxiolytic effect at a lower dosage and uplift mood.
Metabolism of alcohol in the body
Like any drug or medication, alcohol cannot stay in the body forever and is gradually metabolized. In the human body liver is the main detoxifying organ that needs to work overtime to get rid of alcohol, especially when consumed in large amounts.
Alcohol is mainly metabolized with the help of oxidation, and an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase plays a central role in its metabolism. Although, the P450 pathway also plays some role in neutralizing alcohol in the body1,2.
Generally, the lean body metabolizes alcohol faster. Thus, women or underweight men metabolize it faster. However, there are substantial individual differences in alcohol metabolism. Some may metabolize it quite quicker, others much slower. The total individual difference could be as much as five times.
Other factors that affect how efficiently the liver metabolizes alcohol are age, race, food intake, biological rhythms, and exercise.
Certain drugs can also inhibit alcohol metabolism and thus cause severe nausea and intoxication when used along with medications. Such medicines also have a role in treating alcohol addiction.
Signs of alcohol detoxing in the liver – early and late symptoms
Fortunately, the human body is quite good at clearing alcohol from the body. Although the body starts getting rid of alcohol almost immediately after it starts circulating in the blood, its complete removal from the blood is a much longer process.
Once the early phase of alcohol intoxication is over, there is an accumulation of specific metabolites. Thus, after about 10 hours of alcohol consumption, the human body starts showing signs of detoxification. Some of the early signs are nausea and abdominal pains. However, a bit later, psychological symptoms begin to appear.
The next day, a so-called “hang-over” ensues, which is characterized by fatigue, body aches, headaches, dehydration, problem in focusing. It is because the body is working hard to remove all the toxins and unrequired chemicals from the body. However, during this period of intense detoxification, there is a considerable decline in mood and coordination.
As the body works hard to detoxify, its temperature may also rise slightly. As a result, a person may start feeling bad and anxious. This phase is quite critical because the person is tempted to drink alcohol to get rid of pain and anxiety during this phase. Avoiding alcohol in this phase requires tolerating pain and high willpower.
There are some late signs of abstinence, too. Though these signs are much milder, nonetheless, they are there. People continue to feel agitated for 3-4 days, with higher anxiety levels. There is an intense craving for alcohol. Those who consume alcohol in large amounts or are dependent on it may also experience hallucinations during this phase. Additionally, tremors may also be a problem.
Top 10 signs that body is detoxing from alcohol
- Nausea due to intoxication by alcohol metabolites
- Vomiting both due to intoxication and stomach irritation
- Anxiety and feeling of unease
- Tremors as a sign of neurological changes
- Headaches, often throbbing
- Confusion and difficulty in focusing
- Insomnia and changes in sleep pattern
- Changes in heart rate and blood pressure
The above signs occur in most people, though they might be more severe on chronic alcohol abuse, especially at higher dosages. Further, it is worth noticing that signs may differ in those dependent on alcohol.
Prolonged alcohol dependence has signs like:
- Mood disorders and depression
- Weakening of heart muscles or cardiomyopathy
- Hormonal changes in the body
- Increased risk of stroke
- Liver cirrhosis due to prolonged liver damage
- Suicidal thoughts
Alcohol dependence can be treated, and the severity of signs of its withdrawal can be reduced. Therefore, most people do not need special care.
Nevertheless, studies show that about 25% of adults in the US abuse alcohol. Additionally, it is worth understanding that alcohol is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the US. Studies show that about 100,000 people die each year due to alcohol abuse, and there are millions of emergency department visits3.
To conclude, alcohol is a commonly used mind-altering drug. It is legal and relatively safe when consumed responsibly. However, abusing alcohol may cause effects similar to drug addiction. It may harm health, and detoxification is a prolonged and painful process in many cases.
- Wallner M, Olsen RW. Physiology and pharmacology of alcohol: the imidazobenzodiazepine alcohol antagonist site on subtypes of GABAA receptors as an opportunity for drug development? Br J Pharmacol. 2008;154(2):288-298. doi:10.1038/bjp.2008.32
- Cederbaum AI. ALCOHOL METABOLISM. Clin Liver Dis. 2012;16(4):667-685. doi:10.1016/j.cld.2012.08.002
- Alcohol Facts and Statistics | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Accessed February 26, 2022. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics