Why You’re Not Yourself When You Drink, Part 1

Why is it that you’re not yourself when you drink? Part of it may be because alcohol inhibits one’s attention span and ability to focus.

Angry friends quarrel

A common, well-recognized phrase goes something like, “You’re not yourself when you drink.” It’s been understood for decades that alcohol consumption changes people, but now scientific data is showing exactly how and why it changes them.

Drinking Alcohol Blocks a Critical Chemical in the Brain that Supports Attentiveness

Alcohol affects everyone differently, but it also seems that some of the effects of alcohol are universal, from person to person. Case in point, research performed by scientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio found that alcohol blocks a chemical called norepinephrine that promotes attention.1

In simple terms, norepinephrine is secreted by the brain when attention is needed for a task. Once secreted, norepinephrine attaches to receptors on cells within the brain stem called ‘Bergmann glia.’ Bergmann glia cells play a prominent role in promoting neural activity. Once attached, the norepinephrine acts as a ‘boost’ on the brain stem cells, manifesting in the form of increased attention.

“When we want to focus on something, or when we stand up from a chair and become active, a brain stem nucleus releases a chemical called norepinephrine…”

According to the researchers, the brain releases norepinephrine for many reasons, such as when an individual stands up and begins moving about or when they begin reading a book or driving a car. “When we want to focus on something, or when we stand up from a chair and become active, a brain stem nucleus releases a chemical called norepinephrine,” says senior study author Martin Paukert, MD, assistant professor of cellular and integrative physiology at UT Health San Antonio. “To our knowledge, this paper is the first description that norepinephrine in mammals directly binds to receptors on the Bergmann glia and activates them,” he said.2

In the study, the researchers administered alcohol to test subjects and noticed that, in every test subject that received alcohol, norepinephrine secretions from the brain were significantly reduced. In the control group (the test subjects that did not receive alcohol), norepinephrine secretions from the brain continued normally.

The researchers concluded that the interaction of alcohol with norepinephrine may finally explain why, essentially universally, people who consume alcohol experience reduced attentiveness and an inability to focus on the task at hand. The findings are very specific and are limited to just one aspect of how alcohol affects people, but the findings do go a long way toward explaining why people are not themselves when they drink.

How Alcohol Harms One’s Health

Health problems from alcohol

In addition to hampering brain function, blocking norepinephrine secretions, and reducing attention, alcohol consumption has many negative effects on people. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the primary areas of the body most affected by alcohol are:34

The brain. As shown above, alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways. Ongoing use of alcohol can permanently change the way the brain looks and works.

The heart. Drinking too much on a single occasion or drinking often over time can damage the heart, leading to harmful health conditions like cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke, and high blood pressure.

The liver. The liver is particularly affected by alcohol, as the liver is the body’s filter and is responsible for processing poisons (like alcohol) out of the body. Alcohol consumption can lead to liver-related health issues like steatosis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. Of the roughly 100,000 liver disease deaths yearly, 47.4% involved alcohol.

The pancreas. Alcohol can impact the pancreas to the point where one develops pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas. This condition prevents proper digestion.

Cancer risk. Alcohol is a known carcinogen, and it has been linked to cancers of the head, neck, throat, liver, breast, and colon. Even for people who only have one alcoholic beverage per day, any alcohol consumption increases cancer risk, with 4% of cancer deaths in the United States (about 19,500 deaths) being alcohol-related.

Immune function. Drinking to excess weakens the immune system, with people who drink being significantly more likely to contract an illness for up to 24 hours after drinking.

The Scope of Alcohol Abuse in the U.S. Today

Bucket of alcohol

Despite the harmful nature of alcohol, how it reduces cognitive and neural function, hampers attention span, and takes a toll on several critical systems within the human body, many people still drink. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 131.2 million U.S. adults drink alcohol, and 1.8 million youths ages 12 to 17 drink. About 60 million Americans drink to excess.

Alcohol causes about 140,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, and about 210,000 annual emergency department visits are alcohol-related, which have increased considerably in recent years. About 13,384 people die in alcohol-related automobile accidents each year. Overall, the harmful effects of the substance are becoming painfully obvious, with the clearest indicator of increasing harm being the 25% increase in alcohol-related deaths between 2019 and 2020.

Getting Back to Yourself

It may start as something small, but alcohol does change people, and those changes become more prominent and apparent the longer one drinks it. It may start as a reduced attention span and difficulty focusing at work or school. But if one continues drinking, they’ll inevitably experience worse and worse effects of the substance, to the point where they will not be able to stop drinking on their own.

When this happens, getting back to oneself requires the help of a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment center. If you know someone who drinks alcohol and cannot stop, don’t hesitate to contact a treatment center today.

Sources Cited:

  1. NC. “Ethanol abolishes vigilance-dependent astroglia network activation in mice by inhibiting norepinephrine release.” Nature Communications, 2020. nature.com ↩︎

  2. SD. “Drinking blocks a chemical that promotes attention.” Science Daily, 2020. sciencedaily.com ↩︎

  3. NIAAA. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023. niaaa.nih.gov ↩︎

  4. NIAAA. “Alcohol’s Effects on Health.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023. niaaa.nih.gov ↩︎