Metabolizing Alcohol

How is Alcohol Absorbed in the Body?

The feeling of having a drink is familiar: warm belly, light head, calm nerves, and relaxed muscles. Your past sensations while drinking give you a sense of how long the drink has been in your bloodstream and how long it will remain. You can likely discern how long you should wait before driving and what time you’re likely to fall asleep. You know roughly how many drinks it takes before it’s harder to walk in a straight line or to put together a coherent sentence. But what about the science of how alcohol is metabolized in the body? 

Alcohol is classified as a depressant; it is referred to in this way because it depresses the nervous system. This mechanism of action leads to slurred speech, wobbly movements, altered perceptions, and changes in the ability to think, judge and react. Alcohol directly affects the front part of the brain – the cerebral cortex – inhibiting our ability to use judgment, as well as the hippocampus where memories are formed. That is why you might forget parts of the evening when you engage in heavy drinking. Additionally, alcohol affects the amygdala which is responsible for social behaviour, the cerebellum which is in charge of balance and coordination, and the hypothalamus which keeps appetite, temperature, pain and emotions in balance. 

Alcohol has a short stay in the body. Once it enters your bloodstream, your body metabolizes alcohol at a rate of 20mg per deciliter (mg/dL). To put that into perspective, if your blood alcohol level was 40mg/dL, it would take two hours to metabolize the alcohol consumed. The rate at which alcohol is felt or metabolized depends upon individual factors. This comes down to blood alcohol concentration or (BAC), which is a measure of the amount of alcohol in your blood in relation to the amount of water in your blood. Some of the factors that impact your BAC and how you respond to drinking alcohol are:

  • Gender
  • Weight
  • Age
  • Whether you consume alcohol on an empty stomach 
  • Medications
  • Liver disease or pre-existing conditions
  • Whether your consumption consists of binge drinking

What happens when alcohol enters the body?

Alcohol first travels to the digestive system. Unlike food, 20% of alcohol from a drink goes to the blood vessels, meaning that it is carried to your brain. The remaining 80% goes to your small intestine and into your bloodstream. The last step is that alcohol is taken out of the body through the liver and any deficit in your liver may slow this process down. 

Another key factor in determining how long it will take to metabolize alcohol is to know how much alcohol is in your drink. Generally, it takes one hour for one serving of alcohol to be metabolized, which is the equivalent of 5 oz of wine, 12 oz of beer, or 1.5 oz of liquor. 


How can you reduce the effects of alcohol?

  • Although it takes one hour to metabolize 20mg/dL of alcohol, water will help to reduce your blood alcohol level
  • Eat food
  • Stay away from caffeine. It’s a myth that it sobers you up!

It’s important to take into account all of the factors that affect your body’s absorption of alcohol. Safety and moderation are the best approach.

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