What really happens to your body when you drink

Whether it's a fruity piña colada during a tropical summer vacation, or a glass of Merlot while catching up with girlfriends on a spontaneous Tuesday night, most of us indulge in an alcoholic beverage every now and then. Sure, there are plenty of other ways to chill out in between life's busy moments — bubble baths, dark chocolate, Netflix marathons — but let's be real, there's just something about kicking back with a drink in your hand that exudes major relaxation.

And while enjoying the occasional cocktail is usually not a big deal, as the saying goes, too much of anything can be bad for us — and alcohol is no exception. "Many people don't realize the subtle impact alcohol could have on their health," Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, medical editor at WebMD, told me in an interview. "If you're suffering from sleep problems, heartburn, or even high blood pressure, consider your alcohol intake. That late night drink or two may be contributing to your symptoms."

Here's what alcohol is really doing to your body.

It alters your mood

If you occasionally find yourself racing off to happy hour with your coworkers after a stressful day at the office, you are certainly not alone. Hey, there's a reason someone came up with the saying, "It's 5 o'clock somewhere," right?

"A drink can certainly take the edge off," Lauren Slayton, MS RD, creator of FoodTrainers.com and author of the The Little Book of Thin, told me. Drinking can even ease social anxiety, which may explain why so many of us tend to throw back more cocktails at social gatherings like weddings and birthday celebrations. The downside, Slayton explains, is that alcohol can just as easily kill your mood as it can help you feel happier and more social. "Alcohol is a depressant," said Slayton, "And you'll notice the adverse mood … or [you'll] drink consecutive nights without taking a break."

It dehydrates you

It's easy to forget that even the most refreshing martini is actually doing nothing in terms of keeping you properly hydrated. "Alcohol dehydrates the body," licensed substance abuse counselor Christopher Gerhart, told me in an interview. "This is one of the reasons that a hangover is so painful."

While that cold cocktail may hit the spot, Gerhart explained that the alcohol in it causes the body to lose water, actually raising your core temperature. Cue the headache, dizziness and sudden sleepiness.

It ages you

Aside from a slew of unpleasant side effects, alcohol-induced dehydration could be making you look older, according to Dr. Bobby Buka, one of New York City's leading dermatologists and the founder of Bobby Buka MD. "The skin ages more quickly when isomolar fluids are not available, that is, fluids that your body can process easily," Buka explained to me in an interview. "Pore size, skin turgor, oil balance — all key features of a healthy complexion — are directly related to maintaining a healthy serum balance that alcohol affects."

It damages your gut

Ever felt uncomfortably bloated after a night of drinking? Well, turns out that beer belly could be doing more than making your pants feel a little tighter. "Alcohol actually raises your levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory protein, which can contribute to chronic inflammation," Dr. Will Cole, renowned functional medicine practitioner, told me. "A lot of people don't realize that it is actually damaging your gut health."

In fact, Dr. Cole says just one night of drinking can damage your gut lining and cause mal-absorbency, which over time leads to leaky gut syndrome. "This allows toxins and bad bacteria to enter your bloodstream and can cause a slew of various chronic health problems," he said.

It messes with your sleep

If you've ever felt yourself getting a little drowsy after a few glasses of wine, it might seem like alcohol actually promotes sleep. But that's not the case. According to the National Sleep Foundation, alcohol blocks Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, often thought be the most important part of the sleep cycle. This, in turn, leaves you feeling sluggish and unfocused the morning after drinking.

Clayton agrees, saying, "Alcohol, especially when you have two or more drinks, adversely affects your sleep. You'll fall asleep but your sleep quality will suffer."

It sabotages your weight loss goals

If you're hitting the gym every day but still not seeing results on the scale, those weekend cocktails could be to blame. "Alcohol, no matter what form, has a lot of calories," Gerhart said. "Obviously a craft-brewed stout ale has more calories than a vodka and soda, but all the calories from alcohol are empty, having little or no nutritional value."

Clayton agrees. "I think the weight connection is something people don't understand," she told me. "Sure, they know alcohol has calories but it's also a toxin. This means you burn off these calories first. You'll burn off your booze before we burn any of that body fat most of us would like to part with."

It literally changes your brain

You may remember Jaime Foxx and T-Pain blaming it on the "a-a-alcohol" back in 2009, but it turns out this R&B jam wasn't too far off. According to Dr. Cole, "Alcohol targets your neurotransmitters GABA, dopamine, and glutamate," which causes side effects like slowed or slurred speech, limited memory and blacking out. Oh yea, and let's not forget the inevitable, and always embarrassing, drunk texting.

What's even more worrisome, Dr. Cole explains, "Over time, if alcohol is abused heavily, these symptoms can actually continue to affect you psychologically even when not drinking because it alters the hard-wiring of your brain."

It increases risk for disease

Most of us have heard that the occasional glass of alcohol can decrease the risk of coronary heart disease. However, Cassoobhoy says, "Drinking more than two drinks per day increases the risk of high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation and stroke. Drinking also increases your risk of cancer, and the more you drink the higher the risk." She explained this applies particularly to cancers of the head, neck and digestive tract (smoking with alcohol makes this worse).

"Women who drink alcohol also increase their risk of breast cancer," Cassoobhoy added. "And while a little alcohol might help bone density for strong bones, heavy alcohol use increases falls and osteoporosis, translating to more fractures, especially hip fractures."

It can lead to addiction

Because alcohol is legal, we often forget that for some people, it came become majorly addictive quite quickly. "Tolerance can develop pretty rapidly for some people. A buzz that used to come from two to three beers may begin to take a few more," Gerhart explained. "Having a high tolerance is not a sign of masculinity or fortitude; it is a sign that the body may be getting physically adapted to the presence of alcohol, one of the hallmarks of addiction."

If you feel like you and alcohol might be spending a little too much time together, it may be a sign it's time to cut back, or even reach out for help. The National Council of Alcohol and Drug Dependence offers a useful alcohol self assessment that can help you learn more.

Putting your health first

We get it. Learning all the scary ways alcohol affects our bodies is a major buzz kill. And while this doesn't mean you should swear off happy hour forevermore, it is important to be mindful of your drinking habits so that you won't let them get the best of you.

And if you are going to indulge in an occasional weekend cocktail, Dr. Buka stresses, "Hydration, hydration, hydration. But not the next day. It's too late then. Best advice: alternate every two alcoholic drinks with one glass of water to keep the balance going in real time." Cheers!