Alcohol can cause relaxation, mood changes, memory disturbances, and, over time, extensive brain and body damage.
These direct negative effects, combined with other potential consequences such as drunk driving, make alcohol one of the most dangerous substances.
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
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 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
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.
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
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
The body can metabolize one standard drink per hour.2 Actual drinks may contain the equivalent of multiple standard drinks within them, as is often the case with high-percentage beer or cocktails.
The time it takes for the body to metabolize all of the ingested alcohol will depend on how many standard drinks the person consumed in a drinking session. For example, if a person binge drinks 5 standard drinks it will take their body approximately 5 hours to fully metabolize all of the alcohol.
The length of time that alcohol remains in a person’s system averages around 1 standard drink per hour, no matter how quickly a person drank. Unlike the effects of alcohol, ethanol metabolism rates are largely unaffected by a user’s speed of consumption.15 However, other factors such as base metabolic rate can have an influence on the elimination of alcohol from the body.15
Factors That Affect How Quickly Alcohol Is Processed
Chronic liver problems, perhaps due to long-standing drinking habits, may impede the organ’s ability to process alcohol out of the body, resulting in longer metabolism times.15 In addition, other factors can affect how quickly alcohol is eliminated from the body, including:15
- Sex: Women tend to eliminate alcohol from the body faster than men.
- Age: Younger people process alcohol faster than older people, with the exception of babies and very young children because they do not yet have the enzyme necessary to process alcohol.
- Race: Ethnicities with differing liver mass demonstrate differences in alcohol eliminations rates.
- Food: Metabolism of alcohol is higher after a person has eaten.
- Time of day: Ethanol metabolism varies with biological rhythms, possibly related to body temperature variations.
- Exercise: More exercise may slightly increase alcohol elimination rates.
- Frequency of drinking: Heavy, frequent drinking increases the rate of alcohol metabolism, but liver damage due to chronic use can have the opposite effect.
- Other drugs: Medications that inhibit or compete with the enzyme necessary to process alcohol (alcohol dehydrogenase) will slow the processing rate for ethanol.
Get Help for Alcoholism
Are you concerned about alcohol use in yourself or someone you care about? It’s never too late to get help. Every month, people struggling with alcohol abuse get help and find their recovery path.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2010). Beyond Hangovers: Understanding alcohol’s impact on your health.
. Kuhn, C., Swartzwelder, S., & Wilson, W. (2014). Buzzed: The straight facts about the most used and abused drugs from alcohol to ecstasy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What is a standard drink? National Institute of Health.
. Administrative Office of the Courts. (2016). Short and long term effects.
. University of Notre Dame. (2016). What is intoxication?
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). Alcohol overdose: The dangers of drinking too much. National Institute of Health.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Alcohol Poisoning Deaths.
. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Alcoholic neuropathy.
. University of Maryland Medical Center. (2013). Alcoholism.
. Hess, C. W. & Saunders-Pullman, R. (2006). Movement disorders and alcohol misuse. Addiction Biology, 11(2). 117-125.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol’s effects on the body. National Institute of Health.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1993). Alcohol and the liver. National Institute of Health, 19(329).
. Uppal, R., Lateef, S. K., Korsten, M. A., Paronetto, F., & Lieber, C. S. (1991). Chronic alcoholic gastritis. Roles of alcohol and Helicobacter pylori. Archives of Internal Medicine, 151(4). 760-764.
. Biasotti, A. A. & Valentine, T. E. (1985). Blood alcohol concentration determined from urine samples as a practical equivalent or alternative to blood and breath alcohol tests. Journal of Forensic Science, 30(1). 194-207.
. Cederbaum, A. I. (2012). Alcohol metabolism. Clinical Liver Disease, 16(4). 667-685.
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