Drinking alcohol can be potentially dangerous, especially if you are outside in the cold. As energy costs have soared in recent months, it’s also worth pointing out that drinking alcohol is not a safe or sensible way to stave off the cold in your own home either. The false feelings of warmth are only temporary and your core body temperature could drop to unsafe levels. Frequent or heavy drinking can also have a number of other negative impacts on your physical and mental health.
What Does Alcohol Do to Your Body?
Alcohol addiction and generally drinking alcohol can have a number of different effects depending on the individual, your weight, sex, age, how much you drink and other factors.
It represses an excitatory neurotransmitter called glutamate while increasing an inhibitory neurotransmitter known as GABA in the brain. This is what impairs thinking, movement and speech as you become intoxicated. It also depresses the central nervous system, further affecting parts of the brain that control inhibition, thought, perception, attention, judgement, memory, sleep and coordination.
At the same time, drinking can trigger the release of the ‘feel good’ chemical dopamine. This can make drinking feel pleasurable and rewarding – but the effects start to diminish over time as you build up a tolerance to alcohol.
There are also a number of other physical effects of drinking alcohol. Around 20% of the alcohol you consume passes into the bloodstream through your stomach, with the rest passing through the small intestine. Drinking a small or moderate amount of alcohol can increase your appetite as it affects the flow of stomach juices. Large amounts can dull the appetite, however, which can lead to weight loss and malnutrition in the long term.
This is not the only long-term effect of drinking alcohol. Alcohol is a causal factor in more than 60 medical conditions including high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, depression and several types of cancer.
In the short term, alcohol can also make you pee more as it acts as a diuretic, increasing urine production. This can cause you to lose more fluids than you take on, leading to thirst and dehydration. It is also one of the reasons it is advisable to drink water in between alcoholic drinks.
A short time after you drink it, alcohol will pass into your bloodstream and it is at this point that drinking may start to make you feel warm.
Why Do I Feel Hot After Drinking Alcohol?
The consumption of alcohol affects the way your body controls its temperature – a process known as thermoregulation. Your liver is the heavy lifter when it comes to processing alcohol, converting it into water and carbon monoxide. It can typically oxidise around one unit (approximately to a small glass of wine or half a beer) per hour. The liver produces heat as it works during this process.
Unprocessed alcohol in the bloodstream also acts as a ‘vasodilator’, meaning that it widens and relaxes the blood vessels. One short-term effect of this is to increase blood flow to the skin (‘vasodilation’). This can increase the skin temperature, temporarily making you feel warm. At higher levels though, it can have the opposite effect, acting as a ‘vasoconstrictor’ which shrinks the blood vessels and increases blood pressure. This can exacerbate conditions such as migraine headaches and frostbite.
For some people, the warm feeling from drinking alcohol can also be accompanied by ‘alcohol sweats’. Under normal circumstances, sweating is used as a thermoregulation process to keep the body cool as the sweat evaporates from the skin. Some groups of people, such as those of East Asian descent, can be more prone to flushed red cheeks when drinking. This is due to a genetically determined deficiency of a certain enzyme that helps the liver to break alcohol down.
Alcohol and the Cold Dangers
As we have seen, drinking alcohol can give you a feeling of warmth as more blood flows towards the skin’s surface. This can be misleading though as your core temperature may actually be dropping. One study suggests that alcohol acts as a ‘poikilothermic’ agent, causing a lowering of core body temperature when exposed to cold conditions. As well as sweating and increasing heat dissipation via vasodilation, drinking alcohol may affect the body’s ability or tendency to shiver.
All of this can lead to a person who has been drinking – especially to the point of intoxication – to believe that they are warmer than they actually are. This can be the case even when their core body temperature is reaching dangerously low levels and can be particularly risky when coupled with impaired thinking capacity, decision-making and reactions.
A simple example could be someone choosing to walk home in cold conditions after a night out without the proper winter clothing. As they feel relatively warm, they might not recognise that their body temperature is actually plummeting and this could potentially lead to hypothermia – which can be potentially deadly. The dangers can be even worse if the person passes out or goes to sleep, leaving them exposed to cold weather overnight. There may also be a danger of frostbite in particularly cold conditions.
Warning Signs of Hypothermia
The NHS says that hypothermia is a medical emergency that needs to be treated in a hospital. It occurs when body temperature drops below 35C, with normal body temperature being around 37C.
Some warning signs of hypothermia to look out for include:
- pale, cold and dry skin – their skin and lips may be blue
- slurred speech
- slow breathing
- tiredness or confusion
Some of these may be present anyway when a person is intoxicated but if in doubt you should call 999 or go to A&E. If you feel like you need treatment for alcohol addiction, consider attending an alcohol rehab. You can call on 01908 489 421 or get in touch with us through our contact form.
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