One of the central frustrations of the drinker is the fact that we get alcohol into our bloodstream through our stomach (we imbibe it my drinking it, it goes into our mouths and from there into our stomach where it works its way into our digestive system before eventually ending up in our bloodstream). So if we’ve eaten so that our stomachs are full, it takes far longer for the alcohol to get into our bloodstream. The reason that alcohol being in our bloodstream is important is because this is when we feel the effect of it.
The problem is that alcohol is also an appetite stimulant, it also prevents us from absorbing certain key nutrients which leave us in a state on perpetual hunger, and the lack of good quality sleep also causes us to feel additionally hungry as our body craves additional calories to give us extra energy to make up for the lack of sleep.
So alcohol makes us eat which fills us up, but this also slows down the speed at which the alcohol reaches our bloodstream. Compare this to, for example, smoking, where you can eat as much as you like, have a cigarette, and get the drug (in this case nicotine) into your bloodstream at the same speed as usual (as the nicotine is absorbed through the lungs having a full or empty stomach doesn’t affect it).
This is one of the central frustrations of the drinker; many of them are constantly trying to either eat or drink. As soon as they finish one drink the alcohol starts to leave their system, the corresponding stimulation that their brain has introduced to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol starts to hold sway, so they start to feel anxious, bad tempered and out of sorts. So the natural tendency is to keep drinking. But the drinking also makes them feel hungry, but when they eat they become full which makes drinking harder and means it takes longer for the alcohol to reach their bloodstream.
Of course as you progress along the alcohol road you start to cotton on to this (on either a conscious or subconscious level) so you start to avoid eating when you are drinking so you can keep relieving the withdrawal caused by the previous drink. This becomes easier because the over stimulation that you experience when the depressive effects of the alcohol wears off actually decreases our appetite (stimulants tend to decrease our appetite, whereas depressant tend to increase it). This is why, as people become increasingly dependent on alcohol, they tend to eat less and less. This is partly due to the ever-increasing levels of stimulation and partly due to the tendency to avoid food so we can experience the effect of the alcohol uninhibited by a stomach full of food.
This is also the reason for the beer-belly. Of course a beer belly isn’t caused by beer, if it is were it would disappear as soon as the beer had been urinated out. What it is actually caused by is drinking, then eating, then the alcohol starting to wear off leaving a feeling of anxiety. So you are forced to drink more, even though your stomach is now full of food. The alcohol then depresses the receptors which tell you how uncomfortably full you are and causes you to be hungry even though you are so full you can scarcely move, so you eat more, then drink more, then eat more etc etc etc. This merry-go-round usually ends when we give up and go to bed, to toss and turn all night as the alcohol wears off leaving us over stimulated and unable to sleep, and additionally uncomfortable due to the overeating.
It’s an incredibly unpleasant and frustrating process. So why do we do it? All for the ‘pleasure’ of momentarily experiencing that feeling of peace and confidence we get when we take a drink and briefly numb the overstimulation and the exhaustion caused by the previous drinks, and return for a few moments to how we would feel all the time if we only stopped drinking for good.
There is another aspect to this. The first few drinks do often provide a genuine buzz (albeit primarily from numbing the tiredness and anxiety caused by the previous drinking). But after the first few drinks the stimulants start to kick in leaving us more prone to anxiety and bad temper, and the subsequent drinks just tend to take the edge of this. Both of these aspects mean that the first drinks trend to create a buzz, but as the evening wears on, that pleasant vibe tends to give way to intoxication, sullenness, arguments and irritation.
There is a saying that drinking is borrowing happiness from tomorrow. I think this is nonsense. When you go out with drinkers watch them. See if you don’t find a marked tendency for them to be fairly lively and chatty earlier in the evening, but then either no better off mood wise, or more likely far worse off, than you who are not drinking, as the evening wears on (particularly after eating). The drinkers don’t realise this because each drink does give them a boost, but later on the ‘boost’ takes them from feeling anxious and annoyed, to feeling slightly less anxious and annoyed. Because each drink makes them feel better than they did before they drunk it, they continue to see alcohol as a friend that helps the evening, they don’t appreciate that even during the course of the evening their mood is worse than had they not been drinking.
Watch drinkers. Watch their mood and how it evolves during the course of an evening. That buoyant good feeling never lasts the course of the evening.
Saying that drinking is borrowing happiness from the next day suggests that overall you end up neither winning nor losing; tomorrow may be unpleasant but you have had a doubly good night the evening before. I’m afraid that this isn’t the case. You certainly do have a bad following day, but you don’t gain anything the night before either, in fact even the night before the drinker is worse off than if they were not drinking.
Of course this isn’t always the case. Many people go out and enjoy the whole evening whilst drinking, but don’t forget, humans are social animals. We enjoy socialising (even for an introvert like myself, what I have found is that it is not the socialising per se that I dislike, but that I need to be in company I feel comfortable with to enjoy it, and the vast majority of the time I‘m not in company I feel comfortable in). So often people are actually enjoying themselves despite of, and not because of, the alcohol. If you think alcohol is necessary for social occasions what do you think people in Muslim countries do? Do you think they never socialise and enjoy themselves? I know from experience that they do, but I’ll tell you something they don’t do, and that is get involved in the drunken bickering, arguments and violence that we in the West live with.
What a great article!! Thank you!
Great stuff William! So true. Just four months ago I read your book as part of my sobriety bibliotherapy. You made a huge difference in my life and I often go back and read your insights. Getting these articles helps reinforce the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. That is to quit alcohol for good. So again, thank you and I look forward to your next article.
Thanks William, another good article.
From what I have read the ‘beer belly’ is often associated with visceral fat building up between the organs in your abdomen, which can lead to some pretty nasty health problems.
Wow. Ouch. Thanks again William.
Thanks William, another timely, great blog