We’ve all been there—a night of heavy drinking followed by a terrible hangover, a weekend of sleeping in to recover from a busy week, only to feel more lethargic afterwards, and a food coma after a big buffet meal. But what really happens when we over-indulge, and what makes us do it? Here, we give you the lowdown on what happens to our bodies when we binge.
Most of the time, we overdo things because they make us feel good, at least temporarily. When done too often, clinical psychologists say that all kinds of bingeing are our body’s way of dealing with negative emotions, and are characterized by feelings of powerlessness and shame.
There’s also a chemical to blame—Dopamine. It’s a “feel-good” chemical that our brains crave when we’re dealing with anxiety, stress and depression—it’s what our brains release when we eat fat and sugar or drink alcohol, and when we have too much of it, it becomes like a drug that makes us keep wanting more. It’s also a hormone and neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. When nutrients are ingested in excessive amounts, the chemicals trigger more of this substance that lead to an addictive reaction, which then causes bingeing. Most of the things that happen in our bodies are caused by chemical reactions, and it’s important to understand what’s really happening in there when we binge.
1. We get too much insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas that allows our body to use sugar or glucose from carbohydrates for energy. It takes the glucose from our bodies and distributes them for use in our muscles, and as stored fat for future use. However, bingeing on carbohydrates means a lot of excess glucose rushing through your system. Although glucose is essential as muscle fuel, when it ends up in our blood stream, it messes with our insulin levels.
2. We end up with too much glucose. When glucose stays in the bloodstream, it becomes toxic. Your body will react by doing its best to expel it, which makes you get an adrenaline rush: you’ll sweat more and feel your heart racing. You’ll feel blood sugar swings or rises and dips in energy, headaches, stomach pain, and sometimes, more cravings.
3. We get an overdose of fiber. When you eat too much fibrous food at once, especially dairy products, you get excess gas build-up that causes bloating, burping, flatulence, and mild to severe intestinal pains.
When you eat too much, excess nutrients attack cells that contain protein kinase R or PKR, a molecule that helps our bodies fight viruses. Its response is to fight back by shutting down metabolism because all of these extra nutrients are perceived as a threat. This can lead to metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity.
There’s a reason why drunken nights often end in regret. Rash decisions, clumsiness, vehicular accidents, saying things you shouldn’t have, and so on—these are all caused by chemicals in alcohol that make their way into our systems through our bloodstream.
Alcohol enters the bloodstream as you drink. Ethanol, the part of alcohol that makes it intoxicating, has molecules so small that they get pass between our brain cells and mess up our neurotransmitters.
It slows down the pace of communication between neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemicals carry messages between our neurons, which affect our body’s physical responses, feelings, and moods.
It messes up three major regions of our brains:
Cerebellum, that controls our motor skills and coordination
Limbic System, that monitors memory and emotion
Cerebral Cortex, which gives us the ability to think, plan, behave intelligently, and interact socially
If your stomach is empty, it makes it easier for the alcohol to pass through and hit the abdominal walls. The toxins in alcohol irritate the lining of our stomachs, which causes nausea and vomiting, It also makes us think we’re hungry, because it’s very high in empty calories.
Since our body can’t store alcohol, the liver has to break it down using enzymes. 90% to 95% of alcohol is metabolized by the liver, and the remaining percentage is expelled through your urine, sweat, and breath. Our livers can only metabolize a certain amount at a time no matter how much we drink, and when it can’t keep up, acetaldehyde accumulates, causing a rapid pulse, sweating, flushing, nausea, and vomiting.
Alcohol is a vasodilator, which causes the blood cells to dilate and enlarge, and which is why you often feel warmer and flushed when you’ve had a drink or two.
Alcohol suppresses a hormone called vasopressin, which distributes water throughout the body. When this happens, the water you take in goes straight to the bladder, making you take those regular trips to the bathroom.
Our bodies need sleep to recover and reboot, but there’s such a thing as overdoing it. In fact, studies have shown that 50% people who sleep for over nine hours every night have this much more risk of diabetes, while 38% of people who sleep nine to 11 hours daily were 38 percent times more likely to develop coronary heart disease.
Circadian rhythms are regular changes in mental and physical characteristics throughout the day. Our body’s biological body clock dictates these rhythms. When we sleep too much, our body clocks get messed up and our cells get signals that we’re feeling fatigued because our bodies began using its energy cycles even as we slept. When this happens, we wake up feeling tired, lethargic, and even sleepier than before we made up for lost shut-eye.
Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-like Behavior, published in the U.S. Journal of Nutrition; Harvard School of Public Health Research Center; U.S. Center for Disease Prevention; Mayo Clinic; Beyond Hangovers: Understanding Alcohol’s Impact on Your Health, by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the U.S.; National Sleep Foundation in the U.S.; The U.S. Nurses Health Study; National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke