“You visited our school and told us all the things that didn’t sober people, including vomiting. That didn’t make much sense to my friends and I as when we’ve vomited it certainly seemed to sober us up. If you’re getting rid of alcohol from your body why wouldn’t that sober you up and why do you feel so much better after vomiting?”
When you’re looking for ways to sober someone up you need to remember why the person is drunk and feeling as sick as they do. Being intoxicated on alcohol (i.e., drunk) and feeling sick are two different things (although the two often go together). When you vomit it can certainly stop you feeling nauseous, but it’ll do little to sober up.
Although this is a simplification of a complex process, you’re feeling drunk because alcohol has reached your brain. The alcohol in your stomach is not the cause of your drunkenness. What is in there, however, is likely to cause you to become more intoxicated if it reaches your brain. A drunk person feels sick due to a number of chemical reactions occurring in the body, particularly the liver, where alcohol is broken down and a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde is produced.
It can take a while for alcohol to be removed from the body (even longer for a young person whose liver has not fully developed), so if you drink too much too quickly these toxins build up in the body and you start to feel unwell. That’s where vomiting comes in – your body needs the toxins removed and, as a result, your stomach’s contents are expelled. So essentially vomiting cleans out these toxins, making you feel better. At the same time, it also prevents more alcohol from reaching the brain and the person becoming more drunk. Getting rid of the alcohol in your stomach may stop you feeling as sick as you did but it hasn’t sobered you up. The only thing that will do that is time.
But as you said, many people report feeling as if they’ve sobered up after they’ve vomited – why is that?
When you throw up, you’re putting the body under sudden and/or physical stress and, as a result, endorphins and adrenaline are released. This makes the person feel pretty good (or at least a little better) for a short time, with people often reporting feeling almost completely sober once they’ve finished vomiting. Unfortunately, your body doesn’t keep releasing these chemicals and the effect wears off pretty quickly and the drunkenness returns. You’ve also emptied the contents of your stomach and decreased the amount of toxins in your body, so when you put that together with a flood of endorphins it’s not surprising that vomiting may make you feel a little better for a while.
Vomiting can be life-threatening. If someone’s throwing up after drinking alcohol, or looks as though they may start, stick with them – never leave them, not even for a few seconds. It can take just seconds for someone to choke on their own vomit so it is vital you stay with them at all times.
First published: July 2016
Updated: July 2023