By Lauren Fournier, PT, DPT
At the beginning of this month, Cinco de Mayo gave us an excuse to drink margaritas and the Kentucky Derby an excuse to drink Mint Juleps. You may find additional occasions over the spring and summer (e.g., holidays, barbecues, stressful work days!) to enjoy an alcoholic
beverage or two. If you go past that amount, you may experience the rather unpleasant sensation of “the spins.” Believe it or not this sensation is due to your vestibular system and the semicircular canals I’ve mentioned in several articles (Alcohol cont.) in the past. Here is a great explanation of the cause behind this phenomenon from the article “Why Does Alcohol Cause the Spins?” by Matt Soniak:
“You lie down to get some sleep after a long night of drinking, and the room seems to be spinning uncontrollably. What gives?
The spins happen because of an odd effect alcohol has on your ears — specifically, on three tiny, fluid-filled structures called the semicircular canals. Inside each of these canals is a fluid called endolymph and a gelatinous structure called the cupula, which is filled with cells covered in fine, hair-like stereocilia.
As you move around, the movement of the endolymph lags behind the more solid cupula, distorting and bending it — and those little hairs. When the hairs bend, the electrical signal they send to your brain is altered, helping you to make sense of the rotations your head experiences on each of the three planes the canals sit on — movements up and down, left and right and backward and forward — and keep your balance.
Booze throws this system out of whack. Alcohol thins the blood, and when boozy blood travels to the inner ear, it creates a density difference between the cupula and the fluid in the canals, and distorts the cupula’s shape. The little hairs bend and send a signal to your brain that tells it you’re rotating when you’re really not, and this illusion of motion makes it seem like the room is spinning.
Some of the things that you most want to do when you’re good and drunk, like lie down and close your eyes, make the sensation worse, since you don’t have any visual or physical cues to counteract the false sense of motion. Looking at a fixed object and keeping your feet planted on the ground can help lessen the effect, but there’s no real way to stop it.”
That’s the scientific explanation of the phenomenon so you can impress your friends at the next cookout or party (and a little self help in the last line if you find yourself in this unfortunate situation).