How might alcohol affect me?
The effects of alcohol on the body vary by individual and amount consumed.
Alcohol is a depressant: It slows brain activity and causes impairment to judgment, memory, vision, speech, and gross motor skills. These impairments can vary, based on how many drinks are consumed on a given occasion, as well as the frequency of consumption. The effects of excessive alcohol use can have both short- and long-term implications.
When high levels of alcohol are consumed people can experience memory loss around events, or whole parts of an evening. These are called “blackouts.” Blackouts occur when there is “a disruption of activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that plays a central role in the formation of new autobiographical memories.” This means that your brain is unable to convert short-term memories to long-term ones. This is different from passing out, since the person who is blacking out may still be awake and functioning, they will just have no recall of events. Alcohol-induced blackouts are dangerous as the intoxicated person is more likely to experience negative consequences that could potentially be life-threatening.
When someone’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC)—or the amount of alcohol in their system—reaches dangerous levels, alcohol poisoning can occur. Likely physical effects can include: vomiting, shallow breathing, slow irregular heartbeat, and limited control over body movements, which can lead to physical injury.
Similar to visual myopia, the perception and emotions of someone under the influence of alcohol are restricted to obvious and immediate cues in the environment. Sometimes, students wonder why they make certain decisions after drinking that they wouldn’t make if they were sober. Alcohol myopia may help explain this phenomenon of acting “in-the-moment” rather than weighing consequences or thinking through decisions/actions.
Alcohol reduces REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep allows people to feel rested and alert after waking up. REM sleep also facilitates the development of long-term memory and muscle rebuilding and repair. While some find that alcohol helps with falling asleep, it actually prevents individuals from getting the necessary rest and deep sleep the body needs. These effects can last for several days and create disruption in the body’s natural sleep rhythm.
What is a “standard drink”?
The body can typically process one standard alcoholic drink per hour. The only way to know how intoxicated you are is to understand how many standard drinks you have consumed.
If you make the decision to drink, know what you’re consuming.
The following image provides some guidance around common drinks and their alcohol content:
One container does not necessarily translate to “one standard drink.”
“Green Zone” drinking
At low levels (below 0.06% BAC), alcohol can produce a feeling of relaxation and what some describe as a “good buzz.” As amounts increase, the depressant effects of alcohol become pronounced. These effects can include: loss of coordination and motor control, memory loss, impaired judgment, blackouts, vomiting, and alcohol poisoning.
Higher blood alcohol content (BAC) = higher risk of unintended consequences.
These consequences can include: feeling embarrassed by something that was said or done, decisions about having sex and/or not using protection, hangovers, fights/assaults, missing class or work, memory loss, and getting into trouble.
Tolerance and BAC
Having a high tolerance to alcohol—an increased ability to “handle your liquor”—can seem like a good thing on the one hand. On the other, it’s a misconception that people with a high tolerance get less intoxicated. In fact, BAC rises purely as a function of factors associated with sex assigned at birth, weight, and how much alcohol you consume over a certain period of time.
“High tolerance” means that a body has become less sensitive to the effects of alcohol, and requires increased amounts of alcohol to produce the same effect.
This can pose two major risks:
- A person might continue to drink because they don’t feel as impaired. As a result, their BAC could reach dangerous levels without them being aware of it.
- Our bodies weren’t designed to sustain high doses of alcohol. So having a high tolerance poses an increased risk of running into more serious long-term problems, such as forming an addiction to alcohol.
The best way to decrease tolerance is to take a break from alcohol for several weeks to a few months.
Signs of alcohol poisoning
- Inability to answer basic questions such as: Name? Date? Location?
- Inability to remain conscious
- Inability to control their own body
- Inability to get around on their own (need to be carried or helped up by others)
Do not leave a person alone to “pass out” or “sleep it off” as their BAC can continue to rise and they can become increasingly intoxicated even while passed out.
If you suspect alcohol poisoning or aren’t sure: CALL FOR HELP!
On campus, call 617.373.3333
Off campus, call 911
Making deliberate decisions is key to reducing your risk.
The safest option is to avoid alcohol altogether, however if you do make the decision to drink, there are some ways to reduce your risk:
- Keep track of the number of standard drinks you have. Set a drink limit before starting and try to stick to it.
- Eating before or while drinking will help slow down the rate of intoxication. It can also help reduce the effects of a hangover.
- When you’re out, stay with friends and look out for one another. Set a predetermined meeting place in case you get separated.
- Take a break between drinks. Alternate alcoholic with non-alcoholic beverages.
- Mixing alcohol and drugs of any kind will likely intensify the effects of both and can be fatal.
For more information and references, please view our alcohol information sheet.