Alcohol and It's Affect on Your Body

At different levels of intoxication, alcohol has different effects. Many drink alcohol to enjoy the relaxed, euphoric sensation. However, at higher levels of intoxication, the stimulating effects of alcohol begin to fade.
Understanding what alcohol does to your body and the risks associated with alcohol use can help you in many ways:
  • You can make a more informed decision about whether or not to drink.
  • You can recognize the warning signs of dangerous intoxication and call EMS for a friend.
  • You can reduce the risks associated with using alcohol, including injury, unwanted sex and being a victim of crime.
  • If you choose to drink, you can make safer decisions about drinking.
  • You can get help for yourself or for a friend.

What kind of substance is alcohol?

Alcohol is classified as a depressant because it slows down the central nervous system, causing a decrease in motor coordination, reaction time and intellectual performance. At high doses, the respiratory system slows down drastically and can cause a coma or death.

It is particularly dangerous to mix alcohol with other depressants, such as GHB, Rohypnol, Ketamine, tranquilizers or sleeping pills. Combining depressants multiplies the effects of both drugs and can lead to memory loss, coma or death.

What is "one drink"?

Knowing how to count a standard drink is necessary for calculating blood alcohol concentrations. Too often, people underestimate how much they have had to drink because they aren't using standard measurements.

One drink = one 12-ounce beer. This is normal-strength beer (4% alcohol). Micro-brews and malt liquor have a higher percentage of alcohol (look at the label).

One drink = 1.5 ounces of liquor (40% alcohol or 80 proof). This is how much whiskey, vodka, gin, etc. is in a measured mixed drink or in a "shot."

REMEMBER: mixed drinks may not be measured and often contain far more than 1.5 ounces of alcohol. Drinks with a higher proof (like grain alcohol, Everclear, or 151 proof rum) should also be treated with caution.

One drink = 5 ounces of standard wine -- this is most table wines: white, red, champagne.

One drink = 3 ounces of fortified wine -- this is wine with more than 13% alcohol content, such as brandy, cognac or sherry.

How does alcohol move through the body?

Once swallowed, a drink enters the stomach and small intestine, where small blood vessels carry it to the bloodstream. Approximately 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and most of the remaining 80% is absorbed through the small intestine.

Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, where enzymes break down the alcohol. Understanding the rate of metabolism is critical to understanding the effects of alcohol. In general, the liver can process one ounce of liquor (or one standard drink) in one hour. If you consume more than this, your system becomes saturated, and the additional alcohol will accumulate in the blood and body tissues until it can be metabolized. This is why pounding shots or playing drinking games can result in high blood alcohol concentrations that last for several hours.

Effects of blood alcohol content on thinking, feeling and behavior:

BAC (%) Stage Clinical Symptoms
0.01 - 0.05 Subclinical Behavior basically normal by ordinary observation.
0.03 - 0.12 Euphoria Mild euphoria, sociability, talkativeness, increased self-confidence; decreased inhibitions. Diminution of attention, judgment and control. Beginning of sensory-motor impairment. Loss of efficiency in finer performance tests.
0.09 - 0.25 Excitement Emotional instability; loss of critical judgment. Impairment of perception, memory and comprehension. Decreased sensitory response; increased reaction time. Reduced visual acuity; peripheral vision and glare recovery. Sensory-motor in-coordination; impaired balance. Drowsiness.
0.18 - 0.30 Confusion Disorientation, mental confusion; dizziness. Exaggerated emotional states. Disturbances of vision and of perception of color, form, motion and dimensions. Increased pain threshold. Increased muscular in-coordination; staggering gait; slurred speech. Apathy, lethargy.
0.25 - 0.40 Stupor General inertia; approaching loss of motor functions. Markedly decreased response to stimuli. Marked muscular in-coordination; inability to stand or walk. Vomiting; incontinence. Impaired consciousness; sleep or stupor.
0.35 - 0.50 Coma Complete unconsciousness. Depressed or abolished reflexes. Subnormal body temperature. Incontinence. Impairment of circulation and respiration. Possible death.
0.45 + Death Death from respiratory arrest.

Why are men and women different?

Because of several physiological reasons, a woman will feel the effects of alcohol more than a man, even if they are the same size. There is also increasing evidence that women are more susceptible to alcohol's damaging effects than are men. Below are explanations of why men and women process alcohol differently.

Ability to metabolize alcohol
Women have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol, than men. So a woman's body will break down alcohol more slowly than a man's.

Ability to dilute alcohol
Women have less body water (52% for the average woman v. 61% for the average man). This means that a man's body will automatically dilute the alcohol more than a woman's body, even if the two people weigh the same amount.

Hormonal factors
Premenstrual hormonal changes cause intoxication to set in faster during the days right before a woman gets her period. Birth control pills or other medication with estrogen will slow down the rate at which alcohol is eliminated from the body.

Women are more susceptible to long-term alcohol-induced damage.
Women who are heavy drinkers are at greater risk of liver disease, damage to the pancreas and high blood pressure than male heavy drinkers. Proportionately more alcoholic women die from cirrhosis than do alcoholic men.

What other factors affect your response to alcohol?

Asian descent
Some people of Asian descent have more difficulty metabolizing alcohol. They may experience facial flushing, nausea, headache, dizziness and rapid heartbeat. It appears that one of the liver enzymes that is needed to process alcohol is not active in these individuals. It is estimated that up to 50% of Asians are susceptible to these reactions to alcohol.

Having food in your stomach can have a powerful influence on the absorption of alcohol. The food will dilute the alcohol and slow the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine, where alcohol is very rapidly absorbed. Peak BAC could be as much as 3 times higher in someone with an empty stomach than in someone who has eaten a meal before drinking. Eating regular meals and having snacks while drinking will keep you from getting too drunk too quickly.

Family History
First-degree relatives (children, siblings or parents) of alcoholics have been estimated to have a seven times greater chance of developing alcoholism. The male relatives of male alcoholics are at particularly high risk, with the expectancy of becoming an alcoholic ranging from 20% to 50%. It appears that this risk factor is not just genetic; growing up with an alcoholic parent contributes to a person's drinking behavior.

What is the difference between a blackout and passing out?

"Blackouts" (sometimes referred to as alcohol-related memory loss or "alcoholic amnesia") occur when people have no memory of what happened while intoxicated. These periods may last from a few hours to several days. During a blackout, someone may appear fine to others; however, the next day s/he cannot remember parts of the night and what s/he did. The cause of blackouts is not well understood but may involve the interference of short-term memory storage, deep seizures, or in some cases, psychological depression.

Blackouts shouldn't be confused with "passing out," which happens when people lose consciousness from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Losing consciousness means that the person has reached a very dangerous level of intoxication; they could slip into a coma and die. If someone has passed out, call 911 immediately. S/he needs immediate medical attention.

What is a hangover and can I prevent it?

Hangovers are the body's reaction to poisoning and withdrawal from alcohol. Hangovers begin 8 to 12 hours after the last drink and symptoms include fatigue, depression, headache, thirst, nausea, and vomiting. The severity of symptoms varies according to the individual and the quantity of alcohol consumed.

People have tried many different things to relieve the effects of "the morning after," and there are a lot of myths about what to do to prevent or alleviate a hangover. The only way to prevent a hangover is to drink in moderation:

  • Eat a good dinner and continue to snack throughout the night.
  • Alternate one alcoholic drink with one non-alcoholic drink.
  • Avoid drinking games or shots. Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time is the most likely way to become dangerously intoxicated.

Here are some of the things that WON'T help a hangover:

  • Drinking a little more alcohol the next day. This simply puts more alcohol in your body and prolongs the effects of the alcohol intoxication.
  • Having caffeine while drinking will not counteract the intoxication of alcohol; you simply get a more alert drunk person. Excessive caffeine will continue to lower your blood sugar and dehydrate you even more than alcohol alone.
  • Giving water to someone who is throwing up. Once the stomach is irritated enough to cause vomiting, it doesn't matter what you put into it -- it's going to come back up. Any liquid will cause a spasm reaction and more vomiting.
  • It's best not to take a pain reliever before going to bed. Give your body a chance to process the alcohol before taking any medication.

Here are some things that MIGHT help a hangover:

  • When you wake up, it's important to eat a healthy meal. Processing alcohol causes a drop in blood sugar and can contribute to headaches.
  • Drink plenty of water and juice to get re-hydrated.
  • Take a pain reliever like Tylenol (acetaminophen) when you wake up. Do NOT take a pain reliever BEFORE going to bed because it will tax your liver. Let your body process the alcohol while you are sleeping. We do not recommend aspirin because of Reyes syndrome, a rare but serious illness in teenagers and children.
  • Avoid excessive caffeine as it may contribute to dehydration. However, if you drink coffee every morning, have your first cup not more than a couple of hours after your regular time. Don't force your body to go through caffeine withdrawal in addition to alcohol withdrawal.
  • An over-the-counter antacid (Tums, Pepto Bismol or Maalox) may relieve some of the symptoms of an upset stomach.
  • Do not go too many hours without food as this will increase the effect of the low blood sugar caused by alcohol.
  • Eat complex carbohydrates like crackers, bagels, bread, cereal or pasta.