Damn… Why Am I So Wasted? Ethanol And You.

Hi everyone. This is the first installment of Mr. Science’s Drunken Science. Some of you may have read my other entries here at Denver Off The Wagon. One night over sour beers I happened to begin yakking about azeotropes and proceeded to say azeotrope until it lost all meaning. Anyway, an idea was born. Lots of us grew up with Bill Nye the Science Guy and some of us can probably still remember one of the many revitalizations of Don Herbert’s Mr Wizard. Well, we are older now. There are more important questions in our world. I mean, what the hell makes wine so great? I am sure you have once wondered what yeast do. I can guarantee that you have asked yourself: How does a breathalizer work?

Well, if this thing takes off, we can address that sort of thing.


For the first installment, I think it is fair to address our raison d’etre, our real big thing, our well… I am a scientist, not Edgar Allen Poe. Whatever it is, I think I am going to take a look at why we get drunk. Not so much why you get drunk. But what causes us to be all wasted, biologically. I have a bunch of theories about the desire to get drunk but today is not the day for my opinions on mammalian evolution.

I assume that at this point we all know the basic theory. Booze goes in, we get euphoric, we have a significant loss of inhibition, we can black out, we make terrible sexual choices, we barf, then we pass out and feel like shit the next day. Sure not every night but that is the ethanol arc. Mostly we chug responsibly, catch a buzz and make the world feel more fun for a few hours.

It looks like a puppy... Aww.

Ethanol, or EtOH as I generally refer to it, is our main player here. Ethanol is produced as a metabolic product when yeast metabolize certain sugars. (More on that later!) Good ol’ C2H5OH. It is an effective solvent and used to carry flavors and aromas and kill bacteria and all sorts of other crap. Most importantly, it has psychoactive properties! This effect has been used by animals of various sorts since long before humans started swishing wine and spitting it out like a bunch of assholes. Anyway, we culture yeast in a specific way and wham! Hooch. We can distill those basic beverages and extract the alcohol to make it stronger and then we slug it down.

Once the stuff is in the mouth the action begins. The oral mucosa is variably permeable and that increases in the presence of ethanol. This means that as soon as you start having that first sip, alcohol is entering your circulatory system through the delicate network of capillaries in your cheeks and under the tongue. Then down she goes. The broad network of blood vessels around the stomach absorb a little more and then the small intestine does most of the damage. Intestinal villi are the teeny tiny little folds that let the intestine absorb stuff. The ethanol is passed through intracellular junctions and gets all up in our business.

There are two major things occurring. The liver is trying to get rid of it. From a molecular point of view, ethanol is a poison just like most other drugs. Among other metabolic processes, your liver is meant to facilitate the removal of toxins. Step-wise enzymatic processes take place to modify molecules to utilize and remove compounds from the blood. The best parts of a good drunk occur while ethanol is still cruising around pre-metabolism.

Ethanol acts as a central nervous system depressant. By acting on neurotransmitter systems, we see the overall effect of a quality drunk. Among others, there is GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid.) Ethanol stimulates the release of this neurotransmitter leading to various levels of relaxation and lowers your


So long inhibition!

inhibition significantly as well as increasing your confidence. Don’t forget serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine!) Here you get those wonderful drunken mood shifts. The effect on monkeying with 5-HT is part of the reason you can be laughing with your buddy and then realize that he slighted you in high school, and beat the shit out of him and then cry about it afterward! Along with the the cascade of neuronal events, ethanol also triggers the release of beta-endorphin which is an opiate analog that our bodies produce. Anyone who has had been given morphine will know, analgesia is a result and you will not feel those punches he threw back at you until morning! Wonderful stuff.

We are definitely slaves to our chemistry and the release of inhibition and relaxation is great. Probably why we are drawn to the stuff in the first place. It is fair to point out: You can have too much of a good thing. The progression can go from lovely euphoria and hilarious slight ataxia to loss of consciousness, memory loss (Why did I wake up in a barn with a bowl of goldfish and what looks like the full cosplayed cast of Final Fantasy VII?) loss of motor control and possibly death.

To prevent the inevitable death from consuming glorious quantities of booze, we as good drunks need to live in harmony with our livers. The liver continually removes ethanol utilizing the following chemistry:

C2H6O(Ethanol)→C2H4O(Acetaldehyde)→C2H4O2(acetic Acid) →Acetyl-CoA→3H2O+2CO2

The endogenous enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, acts on ethanol breaking it down into acetaldehyde. This stuff is pretty horrible. It destabilizes into free radicals and exposure results in things like nausea, headache and vomiting. Sound familiar? The effect takes a while too. Maybe like the next morning? The thought makes me shudder. Anyway, our body is cool and attempts to metabolize acetaldehyde into acetic acid (vinegar) before too much damage is done. Acetic acid is then further processed to become Acetyl-COA, water and carbon dioxide. All safe things that are nice and non-toxic.

I assume that by the time the intoxication/metabolism cycle is complete, as we are waking up with shit-mouth and post barf muscle soreness and a distinct but unidentifiable feeling of violation we will neglect to thank our neurotransmitters for a good time and our livers for keeping us alive. That is fair, but I think that before we start our next three day bender, the right thing would be to toast our biology.  Thanks Biology!


What questions do you have for Mr. Science’s Drunken Science?

About Chris Washenberger

What is my favorite drink? Huh... That is a tough one. What do you have? That is probably it.

  • Kyle

    Thanks for the great article.

    Is there an easy answer why there is no easy fix to speed up the C2H4O(Acetaldehyde)→C2H4O2(acetic Acid) reaction? If I understand this correctly, the worst parts of a hangover are from the Acetaldehyde sitting around waiting to get metabolized, causing problems.

    • http://www.denverhbc.com Chris Washenberger

      Essentially, you have to wait for acetaldehyde dehydrogenase to do it’s work. Enzymes are only expressed so much and then they need to interact individually with each molecule of that nasty stuff. In theory, if you were able to get more of the catalyzing enzyme in place it would help. I doubt that an oral supplement would make it through the digestion process. This is pretty much why all of those hangover cures won’t actually prevent hang overs. It is just good old fashioned evolution. Anything else is just attempting to stave off the symptoms a bit. My method is before bed, sink a naproxen with milk swifter out of the jug. At 630, when you want to die, take another one and go back to bed. Sleep til noon. You did it to yourself, you know.

  • Kilo

    Loved it!!! Science, it works, bitches!!!
    Would love to know the difference between good alcohol / ethanol and bad. Occurs in booze and beer. Bad booze can make you blind, and we better all know how to identify that shit.

    • http://www.denverhbc.com Chris Washenberger

      I think that will be well covered in an upcoming article about distillation. Just don’t drink any homemade booze that was cut with methanol until then!