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Caffeine vs. Alcohol: Comparing the Effects on Your Body and Mind

caffeine vs alcohol

You see energy drinks combined with beer or combinations like Red Bull and vodka as often as you see cocktails like espresso martinis. Caffeine mixed with alcohol is nothing new, and young adults mix the two substances more than any other age group. We’re often told not to mix caffeine and alcohol due to the side effects of this potent combination (like not being able to determine your intoxication levels due to the upper effects of caffeine), but how powerful is each substance individually?

Let’s face it, most of us coffee lovers know we are borderline addicted to caffeine. If we don’t get our morning or afternoon cup of coffee, we become incredibly grouchy, but alcohol seems more harmful to our bodies. However, if we put the two substances head-to-head, we might see that caffeine isn’t so harmless after all.

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The Effects of Alcohol

You won’t necessarily feel the effects of alcohol on your body immediately, but that doesn’t mean it’s not working through your system after the first sip. Frequently consuming large volumes of alcohol can lead to alcohol dependence and other mental health issues. Chronic drinking can affect cognitive functions and increase the effects of depression and anxiety.

two mugs of alcoholic drink
Image Credit: Engin_Akyurt, Pixabay

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

If you drink, you probably have some experience with what alcohol feels like. What starts as a tingly buzz can eventually become a horrible headache that tells you it’s time to go to bed. Since these symptoms don’t last long, you probably don’t put too much thought into them, but they can have long-term effects on your body.

Drinking alcohol can lead to:
  • Feelings of relaxation
  • Drowsiness
  • A sense of euphoria and or giddiness
  • Mood swings
  • Lowered inhibitions / Impulsive behavior
  • Slowed and slurred speech
  • Changes in hearing and perception
  • Loss of coordination and body function
  • Gaps in memory or blackouts
When you drink even small amounts of alcohol, your body can react in some of these ways:
  • Slower brain functions: Drinking alcohol, which is classified as a depressant, slows down your central nervous system and causes delayed brain functions. This can affect the parts of your brain that control your body—changing your mood, reflexes, and balance.
  • Increased heart rate: Drinking alcohol can increase your heart rate and cause your blood vessels to expand, which causes that warm feeling when you drink. Heavy drinking can weaken your heart and change how oxygen is delivered throughout your body.
  • Alcohol irritates your digestive system: During the digestion process, alcohol irritates your small intestines and colon as your body tries to break the alcohol down and absorb it. This can affect how food moves through your system, resulting in pain and bloating.
  • Alcohol affects your liver: Your liver is your body’s primary defense against toxic substances. Our livers can naturally handle a certain level of toxins, including alcohol, but continuing to drink will cause your liver to overwork and increase the chances of permanent damage.
a drunk man at home
Image Credit: cottonbro, Pexels

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

Beyond the instant side effects of alcohol, continuous drinking can lead to more severe, even life-changing effects.

Some common long-term effects of alcohol consumption include:
  • Consistent mood changes, including increased bouts of anxiety and irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Weakened immune system
  • Changes in appetite
  • Problems with overall memory loss and concentration

Drinking alcohol also changes the basic functions of your body’s systems. Your immune system, which fights off germs and viruses in your body, can slow down when you consume alcohol. Heavy, long-term drinkers are more prone to serious illnesses due to their white blood cells becoming sluggish and less efficient.

In addition, alcohol can limit your body’s new bone production and make your muscles more likely to grow weak. You put your circulatory system at risk with just one night of heavy drinking as it can lead to an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and even a heart attack. Your digestive system and central nervous system are also at risk when you drink often. When you drink alcohol, your body has a difficult time absorbing nutrients, which can lead to malnutrition.

It’s no secret that drinking alcohol can change your behavior quite drastically. Slurred speech and fumbling due to decreased coordination are common. However, drinking can also cause numbness in your nerves, leading to weakness, temporary paralysis, and an increased risk of injury. Not only can drinking lead to temporary complications like memory loss, but it can also cause learning deficiencies, long-term memory retention issues, concentration problems, and insomnia.

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The Effects of Caffeine

Caffeine is the most common psychoactive drug used today. A psychoactive drug is a substance that affects the brain and changes awareness, thought processes, overall mood, and behaviors. The drugs can cause euphoria, increased energy, or even hallucinations and sleepiness.

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation lists caffeine as a stimulant: a drug designed to speed up how messages travel throughout the human body. While alcohol is a depressant, caffeine does the exact opposite. In small doses, caffeine can make you feel refreshed, focused, and ready to tackle the day, which is why so many of us rely on it in our morning coffee. However, in larger doses, caffeine becomes more sinister and can lead to increased anxiety, insomnia, and even cardiac arrest due to stress.

woman opening a can of energy drink
Image Credit: Fotos593, Shutterstock

Short-Term Effects of Caffeine

Caffeine does more than simply wake you up or keep you awake. Because caffeine is a stimulant, you’ll feel more awake and less tired. When caffeine reaches your brain, you feel more alert.

In addition to alertness, you can experience things like:
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Hyperventilation
  • Using the restroom more often
  • Shakiness
  • A raised body temperature
  • Dizziness or headache
  • Rapid heartbeat and heart palpitations
  • Excitability or restlessness
  • Dehydration

Now, it’s time for the good news. Most of caffeine’s health effects are felt only in the short term. Keep in mind that caffeine is not likely to harm your overall health as long as you follow healthy lifestyle habits like a well-rounded diet.

a woman at work massaging her head
Image Credit: Olya Kobruseva, Pexels

Long-Term Effects of Caffeine

Monitoring your caffeine intake is always a good step to take, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to watch out these symptoms:
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Weakness and body fatigue
  • Low blood pressure
  • Chronic/acute insomnia
  • Nervousness and anxiety

Also, caffeine is addictive. While it is not classified as a physical addiction like alcohol, regular caffeine use causes mild physical dependence. That is why you can get headaches when you don’t have your daily dose of caffeine. If you stop drinking caffeine suddenly, you can experience withdrawal.

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Final Thoughts

While neither caffeine nor alcohol may seem inherently bad in small doses, that doesn’t eliminate the negative effects that tag along behind each of them. Caffeine is a stimulant, making you feel more energetic and alert, while alcohol is a depressant, making you feel sleepier or more drowsy than usual. Both are classified as drugs, and both can lead to dependencies.

When drinking either, it is best to practice moderation and keep the possible side effects in mind. We all enjoy our cups of coffee, as we should, but over-consuming caffeine can be just as harmful as overindulging in alcohol.


Featured Image Credit: Left – Energy Drink (HandmadePictures, Shutterstock) | Right – Alcoholic Drink (Rick Barrett, Unsplash)

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Kate MacDonnell

Kate is a lifelong coffee enthusiast and homebrewer who enjoys writing for coffee websites and sampling every kind of coffee known to man. She’s tried unusual coffees from all over the world and owns an unhealthy amount of coffee gear.

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