“I try to avoid tequila because it makes me an angry drunk.” This or similar morsels of folk wisdom are common on TV shows, movies, and in real life coming from your friends and acquaintances. You may have heard about how different alcoholic beverages produce different moods. However, according to a lack of research, that’s nothing more than barroom balderdash.
Studies that examine how alcohol affects mood have failed to prove that different types of alcohol cause different kinds of moods. However, one sitcom got closer to the truth. In the police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a character is known to display different personalities after a certain number of drinks rather than the type of drinks she’s had. Research supports that the amount of alcohol has a greater effect on your mood than different types.
Learn more about how alcohol works in the brain and why it all generally affects your body the same.
Alcohol is a broad term that refers to a chemical structure. There are many types of chemicals that are called alcohols, including rubbing alcohol, methanol, and the stuff you drink. The only kind of alcohol that’s safe for humans to consume is ethanol. We know that word as an alternative fuel source of the mid-2000s, but it’s actually the active ingredient in your Tequila Sunrise.
Ethanol is a naturally occurring substance that is created when certain plants break down. A very long time ago, humans figured out how to harness this process and make their own alcohol. Making alcohol requires three things: a plant that’s high in carbohydrates, water, and yeast.
Yeast is a living organism that helps to break down carbohydrates. This process metabolizes carbs into two other chemicals, ethanol and carbon dioxide. Yeast is also used to make other foods like bread and yogurt. Yeast is actually a fungus, which is why your bread starts to get moldy, and your yogurt will curdle if you leave out for too long.
Alcohol is made by creating a mash in giant vats of fermenting material that are covered so that the ethanol is kept in and the carbon dioxide is allowed to escape. After that, beer and wine are filtered and aged, but hard liquors go through an extra process called distillation. The distillation process involves heating the mash to separate the ethanol from the other ingredients as much as possible. For that reason, distilled liquors are higher in alcohol content.
Alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream through your digestive system. Once it’s in your blood, your body makes it a priority to process. In your Tequila Sunrise, there’s sugar in the orange juice and grenadine. Your body can store that as well as any water any moisture. But the body has no way to store ethanol, so it treats it as a poison to be processed and eliminated as soon as possible.
Your liver filters the alcohol out of your body, flushing it out through urine. However, if you drink more than one drink in two hours, the ethanol can get past your liver and make it into your brain, where it has psychoactive effects.
In the brain, alcohol is GABAergic, which means it affects a neurotransmitter called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is a chemical messenger in the brain that’s responsible for binding to its receptor and decreasing nervous system excitability. GABA works to facilitate relaxation and sleep, but it limits alertness, excitement, and anxiety. However, alcohol can bind to GABA receptors and increase its effectiveness. The effects of GABA become intensified, leading to feelings of drowsiness, loss of motor controls, dizziness, and disinhibition. It can also cause psychological symptoms like depression.
The main difference between different types of alcohol is the vegetable that you start with and the process of making the final product. Alcohol can be made from barley, wheat, rice, potatoes, corn, and other plants like agave. These plants are fermented with water and yeast, and then the process can become unique after that. Beers and wines are filtered and aged before consumption.
Liquors like whiskey, tequila, and vodka go through the additional process of distillation to increase the alcohol content. Some are filtered through wood coals, and some have other additives. Alcohols have different price points and tastes for a variety of reasons, especially because of the quality of its process, the starting ingredients, and the time and conditions it aged in.
However, that all has to do with the ingredients in each drink besides ethanol. When it comes to the alcohol itself, all that matters is how much is in each drink. Alcohol ideally only has one active ingredient, and that’s the ethanol. Moonshine was a term for illegally or unofficially made liquor, and today, it can also refer to high proof liquor before it’s aged. Moonshine that’s poorly made can produce methanol, a toxic kind of alcohol that can cause blindness and death. Methanol is only found in trace amounts in safe alcohol.
So, whiskey, vodka, and tequila with the same alcohol contents have the same psychoactive ingredient in them. The ethanol binds to GABA receptors and acts as a nervous system depressant. Therefore, different alcohols shouldn’t produce different psychoactive effects. You might experience different feelings based on whether you drink beer, wine, or liquor, however. These different beverages tend to have different contents of alcohol, with beer being the lowest and liquor being the highest.
Because they contain different levels of alcohol in them, you may be introducing more or fewer amounts of alcohol to your brain at different rates. Research doesn’t support the idea that different alcohols produce different moods. However, the amount and speed at which you drink can affect your mood.
For instance, one study showed that a very small amount of alcohol improved mood and cognitive performance. Another study found that a higher dose of alcohol produced aggressive behavior and that the mood effects were dose-related.
So, to say that tequila makes you gregarious and vodka makes you angry is probably not true. But you might say, one drink makes you relaxed, and two makes you aggressive. However, alcohol affects your mood, and research tends to show more benefits with moderate amounts of alcohol.
Bond, A., & Lader, M. (2006, January 24). The Relationship Between Induced Behavioural Aggression and Mood after the Consumption of Two Doses of Alcohol. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1360-0443.1986.tb00296.x
Mathewson, S. (2017, November 22). From Wild to Mild: How Different Types of Alcohol Affect Your Mood. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/60995-alcohol-types-emotions.html
Rogers, P. J., & Lloyd, H. M. (1997, June 1). Institute of Food Research, Consumer Sciences Department, Reading, UK. Retrieved from https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/9833014
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2004, September 16). gamma-Aminobutyric acid. Retrieved from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/gamma-Aminobutyric-acid