Many people drink alcohol to socialize and celebrate, or they enjoy a drink with dinner. With nearly 324 million adults in the United States, the majority of people drink in moderation or do not drink; however, millions still struggle with forms of problem drinking, including heavy drinking, binge drinking, and alcohol use disorder.
People who drink heavily typically drink every day – two beverages per day, or an average of 14 beverages per week – which is less likely to lead to intense intoxication and acute problems, but can damage internal organs like the liver and heart, and dramatically increase the risk of cancer. Binge drinking and alcohol use disorder (AUD) both involve consuming large amounts of alcohol in one sitting; in fact, AUD involves compulsively drinking alcohol and being unable to control how much is consumed in one sitting, per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). About 26.9 percent of adults, ages 18 or older, reported in 2015 that they binge drank at least once in the month before being surveyed by NIAAA; about 6.2 percent of adults in the US met the criteria for an AUD.
Why Do People Drink to the Point of Dizziness?
Drinking too much can feel pleasant at first because the liver processes about one serving of alcohol per hour. As the body processes the substance, the person will begin to feel side effects. The initial, mostly pleasant, side effects include:
- Relaxation and reduced tension
- Lowered inhibitions
- Slower reflexes
- Slower brain activity
- Changes in perception
After a few drinks have been metabolized, the person will begin to appear drunk. These side effects include:
- Slurred speech
- Mood swings
- Poor vision
- Disruption to sleeping patterns
- Flushed face or skin
- Lower core body temperature
- Double vision
- Other perception changes
No one enjoys getting “the spins” from drinking too much, but it is a side effect that many people experience after they binge on alcohol. This condition, usually referred to as dizziness, can cover two different experiences: lightheadedness or feeling like one is about to pass out, and vertigo or a sense of motion when not moving. Alcohol dizziness is more associated with vertigo than lightheadedness, although this type of dizziness can also occur.
Why Alcohol Causes the Spins
The science behind the spins from drinking too much is well understood. The presence of alcohol in the blood affects how the inner ear system works. There are three small fluid-filled structures called canals; the fluid is called endolymph. There is also a gelatinous structure called the cupula, which is filled with hair-like cells called stereocilia. When sober, moving around moves the endolymph, which distorts the shape of the cupula and moves the stereocilia, which send electrical signals to the brain regarding movement, balance, and more.
However, when a person drinks, the system changes. Alcohol thins the blood, which creates a difference in density between the fluid in the canals and the cupula. The shape of the cupula is distorted in ways not associated with the person’s movement, orientation in space, or balance. The stereocilia tell the brain that the body is moving much more than it actually is, so the person may feel like the room is spinning or the ground is moving. This sensation can begin with a fairly low blood alcohol concentration (BAC); 0.08 percent is the legal cutoff, when it is no longer safe for someone to drive.
Continually Suffering the Spins Could Indicate a Problem
Some people may drink a little bit and become dizzy, and for many, experiencing the spins is a deterrent to binge drinking very often. However, for many other people, changes in brain chemistry can lead to consistent abuse of, and eventual addiction to, alcohol.
There are several balance-related visual signs associated with intoxication, which may indicate whether or not a person has the spins and is drunk. These include:
- Staggering or stumbling
- Swaying while standing still
- Being unable to sit up straight
- Trouble standing up from sitting
- Lack of focus or eye contact
- Unusual walk
While these do not inherently indicate alcohol addiction or abuse, if a person is repeatedly observed to stumble, have trouble focusing on objects or people, or fall often, they may struggle with alcohol use disorder or binge drinking.
Other symptoms of AUD, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), include:
- Inability to limit how much alcohol is consumed
- Wanting to cut down on drinking, but being unable to do so
- Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from being hungover
- Craving alcohol or having strong urges to drink
- Skipping school, work, family obligations, or social events to drink
- Struggling with work or school requirements due to being drunk or hungover
- Continuing to drink despite physical, social, financial, and legal consequences
- Drinking alcohol in unsafe situations
- Developing a tolerance, or feeling like one must drink more to achieve the original effects
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, including nausea, cravings, sweating, shaking, and anxiety when not drinking
Appearing drunk consistently, smelling like alcohol, finding bottles or cans left over from drinking a lot, and behavioral changes can all indicate that a person has a problem with alcohol. It is important that they get evidence-based rehabilitation to overcome their potential addiction to alcohol.