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Alcohol and Health

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Senses

March 5, 2024
22 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
March 5, 2024
22 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
March 5, 2024
22 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
March 5, 2024
22 min read
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Reframe Content Team
March 5, 2024
22 min read

Make Sense of Alcohol’s Effects

  • Alcohol affects all five senses by slowing down our central nervous system, starting with taste.
  • Reducing alcohol use helps maintain sensory health.
  • The Reframe app helps you make sense of your alcohol use and offers personalized plans to help you prioritize your sensory health.

You’re in a loud bar. At first, your drink is pretty okay — but soon you find yourself saying, “I can barely taste the alcohol in this!” The noise was overwhelming at first, but after a few drinks you barely even notice how loud it is. The place is packed, and you can barely keep track of everyone around you — it’s hard enough to focus on the person in front of you. You make your way to the restroom, bumping into a few people along the way, but you barely register the contact. Once you get there, you find it strange that you can barely smell the nasty restroom smell.

Alcohol has a lot of effects on our senses. When we’re drinking, every drink reduces the richness of our sensory experience. Come along on a sensational journey exploring the world of the five senses — and how alcohol affects each of them.

The Science of Senses and Alcohol

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When alcohol enters our body, it immediately begins working on our central nervous system — the command center for all of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It acts on our neurochemistry, or the balance of chemicals in our brain. Our neurochemicals regulate every process in our body, so when alcohol starts shaking things up, we experience a wide range of effects.

Normally, our nerve impulses travel quickly. Imagine this: you see a cute animal, and then you smile. Behind this simple and unconscious response is a big release of neurochemicals. First, your brain processes the image of the animal. Multiple parts of your brain activate to release dopamine, which makes you feel warm and fuzzy and happy. From there, signals travel to your face, where acetylcholine stimulates your nerves to contract and form a smile. And all of this happens in a fraction of a second!

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so when we have alcohol in our system, this whole process slows down. This is why our senses and reflexes are so dulled when we drink — everything inside of us is working in slow motion.

Journey to the Center of the Brain

Remember that cute animal? Drinking alcohol stimulates the same release of dopamine, which is associated with our rewards system. When we do something our brain likes, it releases dopamine as a way to tell us, “See how good this feels? You should do it again!”

This is a principle known as classical conditioning. Basically, it’s our brain’s ability to recognize patterns of stimuli. The iconic example of classical conditioning comes from Russian neurologist and physiologist, Ivan Pavlov. In his famous experiment, he rang a bell every time he fed his dogs. After a while, he could ring his bell, and the dogs would expect food. Classical conditioning is the reason why smelling freshly baked cookies makes us hungry or hearing a certain song reminds us of our middle school dance. Our brains are powerful pattern-recognition systems.

You’ll notice we mentioned smelling cookies and hearing a song. Our senses are how we interact with the world. Alcohol messes with our senses and slows down the process of sensory information. So, what exactly does this slowdown look, feel, taste, smell, and sound like? Let’s explore!


Taste is the first sense affected by alcohol—and this makes sense because alcohol enters our body through our mouth. We are basically pouring alcohol directly on our tongue — our taste organ. This immediately starts to slow down the nerves sending taste information to our brain. That’s why the first sip of the night tends to taste the best, but the more we drink the more ho-hum the flavors become.

Two major nerves transmit taste to the brain: the glossopharyngeal nerve and the vagus nerve. (We’ll come back to the vagus nerve; it’s one of the most multitasking nerves in the whole body.)

These two nerves, which carry taste information to the brain, are among the first affected by alcohol. A few minutes later, the alcohol enters the bloodstream, and its effects reach the brain, releasing dopamine. Our brain eventually learns to associate the taste of alcohol with the feel-good effects of alcohol. Have you ever heard alcohol described as an “acquired taste”? That’s because it takes time to build this association.

Over time — and even in a single drinking session — we become numb to the taste of alcohol through the dual processes of classical conditioning and nerve desensitization (aka central nervous system depression). When we become intoxicated, our ability to taste slowly diminishes until the alcohol is fully processed out of our system.

Senses Impacted By Alcohol


Smell and taste are very closely linked. As the 18th-century French culinary writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, "Smell and taste are in fact but a single composite sense, whose laboratory is the mouth and its chimney the nose." These two senses pick up on the same chemical compounds, processing them in different but complementary ways. That’s why food tastes so bland when we have a stuffy nose.

The bond between these two senses is multifaceted. Most obviously, the nose and mouth are close together, meaning they typically get activated at the same time. They’re also both linked to similar parts of the brain involving memory and emotional processing, which strengthens their association.

Alcohol affects our sense of smell as soon as it enters through the front of the nose. Alcohol irritates the nose, causing mild inflammation. In small amounts, alcohol is also a vasodilator — it causes our blood vessels to relax and widen. Greater amounts of alcohol cause vasoconstriction (tightening of our blood vessels), but this early response by our blood vessels is part of the immediate effect of alcohol reducing our sense of smell.

Combined, these inflammatory responses put pressure on the nerves in our nose, making them less sensitive. This is in addition to the effects of central nervous system depression. In the short term, drinking can make us feel a little stuffy. Over time, chronic inflammation and irritation reduce our overall sensitivity to scents.


Have you ever noticed when people have been drinking, they start to talk a little bit louder? When we’re sober, sounds travel into our ear and stimulates the auditory nerve. We process these sounds and use the volume context to decide how loudly we should speak. Damage to the auditory nerve is responsible for why it can be so hard to hear after a loud concert. Alcohol causes acute desensitization of the auditory nerve by depressing the central nervous system. This process is much the same as the hearing damage, although it is temporary and less intense.

Of course, over time, this very mild damage can add up when added to the everyday stresses on hearing.

Balancing Act

There’s more to the story than just sound, though. The ear plays a complex role in balance; while the outer ear is the home of sound perception, the inner ear is the home of our vestibular system, the complex system of fluid-filled canals that helps us understand how our body is moving. The vestibular system helps us tell if we are moving forward, backwards, up, or down, even with our eyes closed. Think of these canals as a carpenter’s level with a water bubble in the middle. Our nerves detect that bubble’s movement, and our bodies reflexively respond to keep it right in the center.

When we drink, we may find it harder to keep our balance. When alcohol depresses our central nervous system, we don’t get the feedback we need in a timely manner, so we’re slower to respond to changes in our position.

When we feel dizzy or unsteady, we may want to lie down, but when we’re intoxicated, that often makes us feel worse or can give us “the spins.” Lying down causes all that fluid to shift again. Plus, alcohol causes the ampullary cupula — part of our vestibular system — to become lighter than the fluid surrounding it, making it more sensitive to gravity.


The inner ear isn’t the only factor in our ability to stay balanced. Feedback from our muscles, bones, and tendons helps us orient ourselves in space and understand our body positions. This is called proprioception, and alcohol hinders this essential ability. Maybe you’ve heard of a field sobriety test — walking in a straight line, touching your nose, etc, tests our proprioception. Our proprioceptive system is delicate, so it doesn’t take much alcohol to start affecting us.

Alcohol also diminishes the sensitivity of touch, and it does so in the same way it dulls our other senses. We have millions of nerves receiving input from our skin, making it the most sensitive of our five senses. When alcohol consumption slows our central nervous system, the numbing effect impacts our sense of touch the most.

This is another factor contributing to drunken unsteadiness. We don’t receive nerve impulses from our feet as quickly, so we don’t entirely understand when and where we are stepping. We also may knock into objects (or people) and not realize just how hard the hit is.

In the days before anesthesia, doctors would give people large amounts of high-proof alcohol — something like a very strong whiskey, vodka, or grain alcohol. This helped numb patients and reduce the pain of a surgical or dental procedure.

Sexual dysfunction is also common when someone is intoxicated. The reasons for this are complex, but one factor is reduced sensation of touch when alcohol is in the mix. 


Perhaps the most noticeable sense altered by alcohol is our vision. Blurred vision is one of the most common early symptoms of alcohol intoxication. We may also notice that our eyelids start to droop and feel heavy.

When we look at something — say, an apple — our eye takes in the light and conducts the information through the optic nerve to the back of our brain, which interprets the image. All of this happens very quickly. But when we are intoxicated, this process can take a lot longer. Images take longer to get to our brain, and once they’re there, we may have trouble interpreting exactly what we’re seeing.

We may also find it difficult to track moving objects. Our eyes are operated by a highly dexterous series of tiny muscles. Since the little impulses asking our eyes for attention are taking longer to get into our brain, we can’t quite keep track of the world around us. (This is another factor in balance issues resulting from alcohol use.)

The amount of light allowed into your eye is controlled by the pupil, which is controlled by our iris — the colorful part of the eye. When bright lights hit the eye, our pupils dilate to avoid overstimulating the optic nerve. When the eye muscles move slowly, our pupils can’t dilate the way they should.

This can be more than just uncomfortable. When our pupils can’t dilate, bright lights can overwhelm us, and we reflexively close our eyes to protect ourselves. Beyond being uncomfortable, this can be particularly bad news for our balance if we need to keep our eyes open while moving.

Beyond the Immediate Effects

The immediate effects of alcohol on our bodies tend to wear off after a day or two. Drinking alcohol heavily and regularly, however, can result in more long-term effects, including a generalized dulling of our senses. But there is hope! Quitting or cutting back on alcohol is a journey and a process, and every step we take brings us closer to improving our health and well-being — and that includes sharpening our senses.

Sensible Steps

Let’s take a look at a few ways to improve our relationship to alcohol and manage our sensory health.

  • Tune in to your senses. Keep tabs on your sensory health with regular visits to a general practitioner or primary care physician. They can perform basic exams to detect any potential sensory issues and recommend steps for managing your goals.
  • Quit or cut back. If you’re concerned that alcohol may be harming your senses, take steps to reduce your intake mindfully. Keep track of how cutting back or quitting makes you feel and any sensory changes you experience.
  • Explore alcohol-free alternatives. Explore the world of mocktails. There are endless recipes for tasty concoctions to delight the senses without the numbing properties of alcohol.
  • Knowledge is power. Explore the other ways that alcohol affects the body, and stay strong in your resolve to improve your overall health.
  • Seek support, share strength. Seek support from family, friends, or a professional. A supportive community will encourage your power to control your drinking.
  • Smell the roses. Celebrate the sensory splendor of your everyday life, and appreciate the beauty of living without alcohol. Be mindful of what delights your senses the most and take note of your gratitude.

Looking Forward

Now that we know how alcohol can affect our senses — in the short and long term — we can make sensible choices to maintain our sensory health. Quitting or cutting back is a great way to improve our overall well-being. Reframe can help you make sense of your relationship with alcohol and help you develop a plan to reach your goals. Together, we can do it!

Summary FAQs

1. Does alcohol affect my senses?

Yes. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it slows the rate at which nerve impulses can travel. Therefore, it impacts our processing of sensory information like sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell.

2. What is the first ability affected by alcohol?

Alcohol begins to affect us in the place it enters our body: our mouth. When we drink alcohol, the first thing we notice is a slight dulling of taste. The process begins even before we start to feel the intoxicating effects of alcohol.

3. Why does alcohol make me dizzy?

Alcohol inhibits our vestibular system (our ability to sense movement) and our proprioceptive system (our ability to know where our body is). It does this by suppressing the speed at which nerve impulses can travel.

4. Does alcohol permanently damage my senses?

It can, but our bodies are resilient. As soon as we quit or cut back on drinking alcohol, our bodies start to heal.

Stay Alcohol-Free With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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