When it’s happy hour on a hot summer day, there are few things more refreshing than downing an ice-cold beer. But what exactly happens to your body as you knock back that brew? Turns out, quite a bit. Drinking beer affects everything from the brain to blood sugar levels.
You probably already know the definition of “moderate” alcohol consumption, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — up to one drink a day for women, two drinks per day for men — and that binge drinking can put your health at serious risk. But what happens in your body after just one beer?
Well, there’s a reason having a drink feels so relaxing — a 2013 study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that, even before you feel buzzed, sipping beer releases the famous feel-good hormone dopamine. This lights up the reward centers in the brain, which in some people, can increase the desire to have another … and another.
(Infographic: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)
Although you won’t exactly be hanging from the restaurant chandelier after having a single beer, you do start to lose your inhibitions after just one. “You get more garrulous, talk a lot more, and are more likely to make a social interaction, such as going over to a colleague you’ve been wanting to meet and introducing yourself,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism director George Koob, PhD, tells Yahoo Health. “That’s why it’s a social lubricant.”
As anyone who has ever gotten truly buzzed knows, if you keep the drinks coming, feeling uninhibited gives way to impulsiveness (dancing on the bar, anyone?) and risk-taking behavior (there’s a reason alcohol is also known as “liquid courage”). But Koob points out that the initial effects of drinking one beer are more emotional and cognitive. It’s only if you go for more rounds that the drama ratchets up — as Koob puts it: “where people are very happy and garrulous and then they start getting teary and complaining about their boyfriend or girlfriend” — and the alcohol starts to have a physical effect, messing with balance and coordination.
How hard you’re hit by alcohol depends on several factors, including gender and weight. But in general, alcohol affects women more than men. “Females tend to get more intoxicated than males from the same dose mainly because of the distribution of body water and body fat per kilogram,” explains Koob. “Females tend to have less body water than males and tend to get 30 to 40 percent more intoxicated than men with the same dose.”
And yes, there’s a reason why drinking alcohol on an empty stomach (or without alternating sips of water) seems to bring on a buzz faster: “If you’ve had a meal and are drinking alcohol during the meal, you’ll have much slower absorption rate,” says Koob. “If you’re dehydrated, on an empty stomach, and are drinking alcohol, you’ll get a faster absorption and a much more dramatic high from intoxication in the short-term.”
You’re not imagining things if it seems like you’re going to the bathroom more often as you sip your beer. “Alcohol inhibits antidiuretic hormones, so like coffee, you’ll go No. 1 more often while you’re drinking alcohol,” Koob says.
Now, what might the cumulative health effects be if you were to down a beer a day over a certain period of time? Surprisingly, you might experience fewer kidney stones: A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that every bottle of beer consumed per day reduced the risk of painful kidney stones by an estimated 40 percent.
And while wine often takes the credit as the booze that benefits your heart health, according to a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, beer might also have some kind of a beneficial effect. While any health expert will tell you that binge-drinking alcohol is bad for your heart, the study showed that among men with coronary artery disease, drinking a single 12-ounce beer per day for a month may help reduce the risk of a heart attack. The reason: Beer is full of antioxidants (who knew?) and has anti-inflammatory properties.
Animal research also suggests that an ingredient in the sudsy stuff may boost brainpower. A study published in the journal Behavioral Brain Research found that a type of flavonoid in beer called xanthohumol could improve cognitive function. Other research shows that consuming a single beer per day can help protect vision. How: The antioxidants in beer help fight free radicals that can damage cells in the eye, reducing the risk of cataracts by as much as 50 percent. Up that amount to three beers, though, and you’ll lose the eye health benefit.
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