Does All Alcohol Affect
Your Brain in the Same Way?

Not all alcoholic drinks are equal – at least in terms of how much alcohol each drink contains and the drink's effect on your brain.

WHAT IS ALCOHOL?

Any type of alcohol is produced through a process called fermentation. During this process, an ingredient such as yeast converts a sugar into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which is the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages. Different types of sugar are used to make different types of drinks.

For Example:

  • Barley, wheat or rye – Beer

  • Grape pulp – Wine

  • Corn, wheat, barley, fruit, agave – Liquor

WHAT DOES ALCOHOL BY VOLUME MEAN?

Alcohol by volume (ABV) is the standard measurement for the amount of ethanol is a standard drink. The ABV for a drink represents the number of milliliters of pure ethanol that are present in 100 milliliters of a drink. It is expressed as a percentage.

Alcohol Proof represents twice the percentage of ABV in a drink.

  • Bottle of beer with "5.5%
    ABV" on label

    If you pour 100 milliliters of the beer into a mug, 5.5% percent of it will be pure ethanol.

  • Bottle of liquor with "80 proof" on label

    This drink has a 40% ABV.

WHAT IS A STANDARD DRINK?

In the U.S., the following are considered to be standard drinks:


Beer

12 ounces (5% ABV)

Wine

5 ounces (12% ABV)

Liquor

12 ounces (5% ABV)

Due to the craft brewery boom in the U.S., you can now find beer with a wide range of ABVs. ranging a light lager with a 4.5% ABV to a heavy stout with as high as a 10% ABV. You should always check a bottle's label to see its ABV.

WHAT IS BLOOD ALCOHOL CONCENTRATION?

Because different types of drinks contain different amounts of alcohol, they will affect you to different degrees. In other words, drinking 12 ounces of liquor is not the same as drinking 12 ounces of beer. The more you drink of any alcohol - beer, wine or liquor - the higher your blood concentration , or BAC, will be.

Blood alcohol concentration is the percentage of alcohol (ethanol) in a person's blood. It serves as a standard method for gauging a person's intoxication. It is measured in terms of the number of grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood.

0.08% BAC = 0.08g of alcohol per every 100 mL of blood

DIFFERENT FACTORS CONTRIBUTE TO A PERSON'S BAC, INCLUDING:

  • Weight
  • Type of Alcohol
  • Gender
  • ABV of alcohol
  • Elapsed time between drinks
  • Total servings

Additionally, the combination of alcohol with certain types of controlled substances (marijuana, cocaine, heroin) and prescription medications (opioids) can affect a person's level of intoxication and lead to serious and potentially fatal consequences.

What Are the Stages of Intoxication?

Alcohol flows through your blood and into the different regions of your brain, which can
affect your bodily functions. Consider the following:

  • Hypothalamus and pituitary

    Regulate brain function and hormone release. Alcohol may, for instance, heighten one's sexual urges but decrease sexual performance.

  • Cerebral cortex

    Controls thought processing and consciousness. Alcohol makes it difficult to think clearly and slows processing of sensory information (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching).

  • Medulla

    Regulates body temperature and functions such as breathing. Alcohol can lower body temperature, slow breathing and lead to drowsiness, coma or death.

  • Cerebellum

    Controls movement and balance. Alcohol makes it harder to control balance and may cause you to swagger or stumble.

Additionally, alcohol increases the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain such as GABA, glutamate and dopamine, which may initially cause pleasurable feelings but, over time, produce harmful physiological effects.


In other words, the higher your BAC, the greater effect on your brain and your body's ability to function in a normal way. The following are the generally recognized stages of intoxication:

BAC

Stage

Signs and Symptoms

0.01 to 0.05

Subclinical

Little to no obvious effects. Nearly normal behavior.

Most states prohibit minors (under age 21) from operating a motor vehicle with any trace of alcohol in their blood (0.01% BAC or higher) and ban commercial driver's license holders from operating a commercial motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.04% or higher.

0.03 to 0.12

Euphoria

Mild euphoria, making a person more social. Greater self-confidence, decreased inhibitions. Decrease in attention and judgment. Trouble with processing information. Difficulty with fine movements like writing.

Most states deem a driver to be legally intoxicated with a BAC of 0.08% or higher.

0.09 to 0.25

Excitement

Emotional instability and loss of judgment. Loss of comprehension and short-term memory. Loss of coordination and balance. Blurry vision and slurred speech. Possible sleepiness and vomiting.


0.18 – 0.30

Confusion

Confusion and disorientation. Extreme emotions (anger, fear, grief). Staggering and dizziness. Increased pain threshold. Lethargy and sleepiness. Lack of coordination.


0.25 to 0.40

Stupor

Can barely move, stand or walk. Virtually no response to stimuli. May vomit or experience incontinence. May fall in and out of consciousness.


0.35 to 0.50

Coma

Can barely move, stand or walk. Virtually no response to stimuli. May vomit or experience incontinence. May fall in and out of consciousness.


0.45 or higher

Death

Death due to respiratory arrest.