How Does Alcohol Work?
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When a person drinks alcohol, it gets absorbed into the bloodstream about 20% from the stomach and the last 80% from the small intestine.2 The body’s absorption of ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic drinks, is heavily influenced by the amount of food in the stomach.2
A person who drinks on an empty stomach will feel the effects of alcohol much faster. Their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will peak about an hour after drinking. It will take almost 2 hours for someone who drinks after a meal to completely absorb the alcohol.2 Someone who drinks on an empty stomach may have a BAC up to 3 times greater than someone who drinks the same amount with a meal.2
After alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, the liver begins to metabolize it. Generally, the body can process one standard drink per hour.2 Standard Drink
A standard drink is defined as:
- 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer.
- 5 ounces of 12% ABV wine.
- 1.5 ounces of 40% ABV hard liquor.3
When people drink more than one standard drink in an hour, the excess alcohol accumulates in the blood waiting to be metabolized, increasing the drinker’s BAC and the intoxicating effects.2 When a person drinks many standard drinks in an evening, it may take hours to process all the alcohol out of the bloodstream. The effects of intoxication will be present until the liver metabolizes all the ethanol.
When people drink alcohol at a faster rate than their body can metabolize it, they may begin to experience the effects of intoxication. The resultant depression or slowing of brain activity can result in behavioral changes.
Alcohol short-term effects include:4, 5
- Mood changes and enhancement.
- Altered speech.
- Slowed reaction time.
- Impaired vision.
- Decreased inhibitions.
- Coordination problems.
- Hazy thinking.
- Poor concentration.
The effects of alcohol can vary based on a number of factors, such as:
- The user’s tolerance.
- How quickly they consumed the alcohol.
- How much they drank.
- Whether they have other medications in their system that interact with alcohol.
- Their body size.1, 2
Even drinkers who are above the legal limit for driving (BAC of 0.08%) may not appear intoxicated to others, despite posing a threat behind the wheel of a vehicle due to their reduced reaction time and impaired perception.2
Unfortunately, alcohol’s intoxicating effects also go hand-in-hand with dangerous side effects such as slowed breathing and loss of consciousness. Even though alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it affects the entire body.
Some of the side effects of alcohol include:1, 4
- Slurred speech.
- Uncontrolled urination and defecation.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Lower body temperature.
- Disrupted senses such as vision or hearing.
- Blunted perception and coordination.
- Impaired judgment.
- Memory problems or blackouts.
- Loss of consciousness.
One of the most dangerous short-term risks of heavy binge drinking is alcohol overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning.
When a person drinks too much alcohol, areas of the brain that maintain basic life-supporting functions such as breathing, temperature, and heart rate begin to shut down.6 When a person is suffering alcohol poisoning, they may experience:6
- Extreme confusion.
- Breathing problems.
- Very slow heart rate.
- Clammy skin.
- Low body temperature.
- Dulled responses.
- Trouble remaining conscious.
These symptoms can be life-threatening. In fact, an average of 6 people die every day due to alcohol poisoning.7
If alcohol overdose is suspected in yourself or a loved one, call 911 immediately.
Long-Term Effects on the Body and Brain
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Chronic alcohol use can have drastic long-term effects on the brain, heart, liver, gastrointestinal system, pancreas, and immune system.1 Chronic drinking has also been associated with various forms of cancer.1
Alcohol long-term effects can include:1, 8
- Neurologic conditions or movement disorders such as essential tremor and myoclonus dystonia.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome a collection of symptoms such as confusion, loss of balance, and memory loss due to vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency.
- Peripheral neuropathy, a condition characterized by tingling, pain, or other irregular sensations in the arms or legs.
- Hepatic encephalopathy, a dangerous and potentially fatal brain disorder caused by compromised liver function.
- Alcoholic neuropathy, which can produce numbness in the limbs along with muscle weakness, muscle cramps, heat intolerance, problems urinating, impotence, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation.1, 8, 9, 10
- Cardiovascular disease including hypertension, cardiac arrhythmia, and cardiomegaly.
- Alcoholic cardiomyopathy, in which the heart weakens and gradually becomes less efficient at pumping blood throughout the body. This can eventually lead to heart failure.1
- Fibrosis, which is when scar tissue builds up in the liver, impeding its function.
- Cirrhosis, characterized by scarring of the liver, which prevents it from functioning properly.
- Steatosis, or fatty liver.1, 11, 12
- Chronic pancreatitis, which can lead to diabetes or death.1
- Gastrointestinal disturbances, including alcoholic gastritis, as well as worsening of pre-existing conditions such as gastric and duodenal ulceration.
- Cancer, including mouth, pharynx, esophagus, larynx, liver, and breast cancer.
- Impaired immune system, including reduced white blood cell function, suppressed development of T-cells, and impaired ability to fight off infections, viruses, and cancerous cells.
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which is characterized by developmental damage to a growing fetus due to the mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy. FAS can result in severe reductions in growth and brain function.1, 9, 13