There are three main types of alcohol: beer, wine, and distilled spirits. All of these alcoholic substances work in much the same way.
All of them are made to be consumed orally, either alone or in combination with some other liquid. And all of them are designed to work with receptors inside the gut and brain. When alcohol is active in a person’s body, that person might feel relaxed, open, euphoric, or all three.
How Alcohol Works
In order to understand alcohol’s power, it is vital to understand how alcohol’s strength is measured. According to West Virginia University, alcoholic content is measured by the term proof. That term is a measure of twice the percentage of alcohol by volume within a beverage.
Proof numbers are listed on bottles of alcohol. The higher the proof number, the higher the potency of the liquid inside. But that proof number might not appear on individual drinks or unit of drink. A person ordering a drink in a bar, for example, might have absolutely no idea how strong that drink is. Since some forms of alcohol are relatively tasteless, people who hope to measure strength with the tongue might quickly be disappointed.
Proof matters, because very strong forms of alcohol can do a great deal of damage to the body. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that alcohol is metabolized in the body through several different pathways, the most common of which involves enzymes that break down alcohol molecules. The first step involves a molecule that converts alcohol into a very toxic and carcinogenic substance. Then, another enzyme breaks that toxic substance down into water and carbon dioxide, so the remainder can exit the body through urine.
Very strong proof numbers could lead to very high exposure to this toxic chemical. The body may not be able to process the alcohol quickly enough to avoid damaging tissue during a drinking spell. That could explain why alcohol has been linked to cancer. People who drink a great deal or who drink high-proof drinks could be exposing their bodies to carcinogens. Their bodies might not be able to handle that exposure.
Alcohol in the Bloodstream
The National Health Service reports that it takes about an hour for the average person to metabolize one unit of alcohol. However, NHS reports that can vary due to:
- Food intake
- Medication interactions
- Type of alcohol consumed
- Liver health
Some people move through alcohol quite quickly, while others need more time to process the same amount of alcohol.
There is no way to train the body to move faster, and there is no way to make the body process alcohol slower. There is something everyone who puts alcohol in their blood every day can do. These people can get help for alcoholism. A treatment program combines medication management, which can soothe the alcohol withdrawal process, with intensive therapy, so people can understand why they are drawn to drink and what they can do to make those drinking cues manageable. With this approach, people might be less compelled to drink, and that could help them to live longer and happier lives.
Alcohol is one of the most commonly consumed recreational substances in the US. Although it is legal for adults ages 21 and older to drink, too many people struggle with alcohol abuse – binge drinking, heavy drinking, or even alcohol use disorder. To safely consume alcohol, it is important to understand how the body manages the substance and how a person can help their body manage the process of metabolizing alcohol.
How long do different types of alcohol stay in the system?
The length of time alcohol stays in the system depends on a lot of different factors, including age, gender, weight, metabolism, medications, food consumption, and tolerance. Typically, however, one unit of alcohol stays in the body for one hour; drinking more than one drink per hour will increase the amount of alcohol in the body and lead to intoxication. When a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches 0.08 percent, they are considered legally intoxicated and unsafe to drive.
One unit is equivalent to about 8 grams of pure alcohol. While most people assume that this is equivalent to one glass or shot, that is not always the case. Beer and wine, for example, are about two units per serving.
Additionally, alcohol can be detected on a breathalyzer test for up to 24 hours, on a blood test for 12 hours, and via urine for 3-5 days after consumption.
How does the liver help to process alcohol?
The breakdown of alcohol into other chemicals that affect the body begins in the stomach, but the majority of the work is performed by the liver. Alcohol dehydrogenase is the term for a group of molecules that begin removing hydrogen atoms from alcohol, creating acetaldehyde. People who drink moderately have less taxed livers, so they are better able to convert poisonous acetaldehyde into smaller molecules, which are then released from the body. However, when a person consumes large amounts of alcohol, the liver cannot process the acetaldehyde, and it begins to build up in the body.
How do drugs alter the metabolism of alcohol?
Both prescription and illicit drugs can change how the body responds to alcohol, and both can change how the stomach absorbs nutrients, including components of alcohol. The small amount of alcohol taken in by the stomach and small intestine is called first pass metabolism, since most alcohol metabolizing occurs in the liver. Some drugs can block first pass metabolism by changing the amount of stomach acid or blocking absorption, which can lead to greater intoxication after the liver processes as much alcohol as possible. Other drugs can damage the liver, and if the liver is damaged while consuming alcohol, then more alcohol is released into the blood.
Additionally, alcohol can change how drugs are metabolized, leading to medications being less effective or more serious side effects from both prescription and illicit drugs.
How long does it take to get BAC below 0.08?
The amount of alcohol a person must consume to reach 0.08 percent BAC varies based on many factors, and the same is true for recovery time. Generally, it takes one hour per beverage consumed to become sober again. For example, if a person consumes one beer and three shots in an hour, that individual will generally require four hours to become sober if they immediately stop consuming alcoholic beverages. However, mixed drinks, large glasses of wine, and craft beers are likely to contain more than one unit of alcohol, so they may require more than one hour per drink to fully metabolize.
Why are women affected by alcohol differently than men?
Several studies have shown that women are affected more by smaller amounts of alcohol than men, even when height and weight are comparable. A few suggested reasons include:
- Water weight: The average man’s body is 61 percent water while the average woman’s body is 52 percent water. More water weight means the body dilutes alcohol more effectively, so women are not as able to dilute alcohol when it enters their body. This means more alcohol enters the bloodstream.
- Amount of alcohol dehydrogenase: Men have more of this digestive enzyme than women, making their bodies more efficient at breaking alcohol down and expelling it.
- Hormonal changes: Estrogen and progesterone levels change in a woman’s body through the monthly menstrual cycle; changes in sex hormones affect how many chemicals are metabolized, especially intoxicating substances like alcohol.
- Body fat: Women carry more body fat than men, and fat does not absorb alcohol as readily. This means that more alcohol enters the bloodstream, so women become intoxicated faster and feel the side effects of alcohol consumption more strongly.
These conditions put women at a greater risk of negative consequences, including damage and weakening of the heart, higher blood pressure leading to damage to the brain and pancreas, and a greater risk of cirrhosis.
How does food consumption affect the rate of processing alcohol?
Eating before consuming alcohol can slow down how quickly alcohol is absorbed by the stomach and small intestine, especially if the food is high in protein, which takes longer to digest. However, eating will not stop a person from becoming drunk. Some alcohol is absorbed by the stomach and small intestine, but much of it is expelled by the liver after that organ has processed as much alcohol as possible. Drinking on an empty stomach, however, can cause a person to become intoxicated twice as quickly, and it can also irritate the stomach and intestines.
Can coffee help you sober up?
No. In fact, drinking coffee after becoming drunk is dangerous. Caffeine somewhat counteracts alcohol’s sedating abilities, but not the other ways alcohol intoxicates a person. Someone who has consumed alcohol and caffeine will still have poor decision-making ability, slowed reaction time, and mood changes. Making a person more alert with these other conditions can put them in danger; they are more likely to attempt to drive or believe they are not very intoxicated.
If a person is drunk and wants to sober up, they may consume food if they can keep it down, and they should drink water. Water helps to dilute the alcohol in the body while food helps to slow down the body’s alcohol absorption. Additionally, the person should immediately stop drinking. As mentioned, it will then take about one hour per alcoholic beverage consumed to sober up.