Why do certain types of alcohol affect me differently?
I know alcohol is alcohol, but why do certain types of alcohol affect you differently? Wine makes me chatty and laugh, but gin sedates me. Just wondering. Tracey
Good question, Tracey. And you’re absolutely right that at one level, alcohol is alcohol. But it turns out, the effect of alcohol in practice is pretty complicated.
In this article, let’s explore the basics of how alcohol affects you, the way in which you respond to different types of alcohol, and how noticing the effect of specific drinks can help you begin to change your drinking.
How alcohol affects you
At a chemical level, all alcoholic drinks are near identical. Aside from the very strongest spirits, the vast majority of alcoholic drinks are mostly water, with varying amounts of ethanol (what we commonly refer to as alcohol) and an array of colours and flavours. The ethanol has the same impact on your body, whatever it comes mixed with. So, in theory, the same volume of ethanol should always have the same effect, even it is delivered in a different alcoholic drink.
However, alcohol’s effects are complex. Unlike more straightforward drugs, alcohol is a depressant, a stimulant and a mood changer. Even as it relaxes you, alcohol will work on your nervous system, releasing happy hormones while simultaneously increasing your stress levels. Alcohol is a heady brew, and its effects can be hard to predict or control.
Unlike more straightforward drugs, alcohol is a depressant, a stimulant and a mood changer.
Put it this way. Ever wondered why you fall asleep while your friend is always up to a fight? It’s not just that you might drink different amounts; you’ll both fall down dead drunk eventually. But alcohol’s complex biochemical effects means that it can amplify whatever emotions you bring to the party. Sadness, happiness, excitement, anger, jealousy and joy can all come to the surface when you’ve been drinking.
So it’s not just that different types of drink might affect you differently. Every individual drink can have dramatically different effects.
How you respond to different types of alcohol
It’s not just that alcohol is complicated. Your behavioural response to alcohol is complicated too.
One of the most intriguing fields of research into behaviour with alcohol concerns the idea of expectancy. Expectancy is a psychological term for a predictable relationship between an external stimulus and our response to it. At its simplest, your expectation of what will happen can shape your experience of what happens. So what you expect to happen when you drink can change what actually happens in practice.
You also have the ability to compensate for being drunk. Remember your teenage ability to temporarily sober up and have a straight-faced conversation when someone asked you if you’d been drinking? This demonstrates your ability to control some of alcohol’s effects, even if you are already drunk.
The places you drink, the people you drink with and when you drink affect your experience of different types of alcohol.
And studies comparing alcohol and placebos have shown that you can feel drunk even if you drink something alcohol-free, as long as you believe you are drinking something alcoholic.
Interesting as they are, these lab-based studies cannot account for the complex social context around drinking alcohol. This alters your experience too. The places you drink, the people you drink with and when you drink affect your experience of different types of alcohol. Research has shown that where you are can even change your tolerance for alcohol.
Noticing the effect of types of alcohol
In Club Soda’s courses, we introduce you to a simple tool that helps you pay attention to what’s going on when you drink different types of alcohol. Using simple questions, you quickly build up a picture of how different types of alcohol, on different occasions, can affect you in different ways. All of your observations can help you decide if you need to change. And if you are committed to changing things, you can then begin to make concrete plans.
Be curious about what you expect to happen, and observe what’s going on in and around you as you drink.
As a result of what you notice, you might decide that you need to stop drinking completely or maybe take an extended break from all types of alcohol. But if you are considering moderation, it’s useful to notice how you respond to different drinks. These observations may not be true for you, but here are some examples of how people respond to different types of alcohol:
- Beer. Particular in northern European cultures, beer drinking is often be a social activity that involves rounds with friends and colleagues. Because beer drinking is embedded in a social context, beer drinking can be a way to create and maintain connection with others. The wide availability of alcohol-free beers makes the job of changing your drinking much easier.
- Wine. Wine is shipped in sharing-sized bottles, so problematic wine drinking often involves the temptation to finish the bottle alone. And some wines, especially whites and rosés, have a sugar content that encourages rapid drinking, and even more so if the wine is chilled. There are many alcohol-free wines around, although many wine drinkers switch to other types of alcohol-free drinks with complex flavour profiles, such as kombucha.
- Spirits. Spirits are a wide category. And they are served in so many ways, from long mixed drinks through to cocktails and shots. So we respond to different spirits in different ways. Some spirits, especially with complex flavours, are easy to sip slowly. But most drinkers know there are spirits that they should avoid at all costs, like tequila shots or whisky straight up.
Your relationship with various types of alcohol can be deeply personal and specific. So start paying attention to what happens when you consume different types of alcohol. Be curious about what you expect to happen, and observe what’s going on in and around you as you drink. Keep paying attention. And take action if you need to.
You can dramatically reduce your alcohol intake by making category switches, for example, by drinking alcohol-free beer instead of alcoholic versions. You can also decide that certain types of drinks, like spirit shots, will always be off your personal menu. Just by noticing your response to different types of alcohol, you can begin to drink more mindfully and gain more control.
Dru Jaeger is one of Club Soda’s co-founders and leads courses, workshops and regular groups for people who want to change their drinking