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Your Body Absorbs Alcohol Faster Than You Think

Man Holding a Pint of Beer in Front of His Face

There are many myths surrounding the effect alcohol has on our body, not all of which are true, believe it or not.

Hair of the dog will help with a hangover, for example. Drinking more may sound like a good idea, but the science suggests drinking more alcohol following a binge will only make you feel worse and could lead to further drinking. So, this one is probably false.

Drinking on an empty stomach is asking for trouble, however. This one is actually true. About 20% of alcohol is absorbed directly across the walls of an empty stomach, with the effects reaching your brain within a minute.

So how does this toxic liquid that is actually classed as a depressant truly affect our bodies. And yeah, I said it: The refreshment many of us might like to end a hectic day with is a depressant.

It is so named because it slows down your central nervous system, affecting motor coordination, reaction time and intellectual performance.

And if you really overindulge, it can slow down your respiratory system, causing coma or death.

Indeed, even the smallest drop of the stuff affects practically every system in your body, from the brain to circulation to immunity.

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And while at low to moderate drinking may actually have some health benefits — including a longer life and a healthier heart — excessive drinking risks long-term effects and permanent damage. Moderate drinking tends to mean one drink per day for women and no more than two a day for men

And it doesn’t’ take too many trips to the bar for moderate drinking to become a bit of binging — defined as four or more drinks on a single occasion for women and five or more for men.

However, the amount of alcohol you can safely drink is highly individual, depending on genetics, age, sex, weight and family history, etc.

What do We Mean by a Drink

Before we continue, let’s quickly note what a drink is considered to be:

  • 4-5 ounces of wine
  • 10 ounces of wine cooler
  • 12 ounces of beer, at the standard 5% alcohol level
  • 1-1/4 ounces of distilled liquor (80 proof whiskey, vodka, scotch, or rum)

Alcohol and Your Body

I mentioned earlier how drinking on an empty stomach can lead to pretty disastrous consequences pretty quickly. And that is very much true; however, even if you have eaten, which slows alcohol from starting to affect you, your body will rapidly metabolize alcohol.

And that is because, unlike the food you eat, alcohol does not need to be digested. We absorb it very quickly.

It All Begins in The Stomach

When your poison of choice arrives in your stomach, enzymes, known as alcohol dehydrogenase, begin to work on breaking it down. These enzymes reduce the alcohol entering your blood by around 20%.

And here, women may get the short straw. They produce less of this enzyme, which may partly explain why they get intoxicated on less alcohol than men. But more on that later.

A further 10% of the alcohol is expelled by your breath and urine.

The remainder, however, is rapidly absorbed in the upper portion of your small intestine.

From there, alcohol-laden blood sludges towards your liver through the veins and capillaries of your digestive tract.

And now, the alcohol has arrived at the most important destination as far as your body is concerned.

Only your liver cells have any kind of chance of producing enough enzymes to further break down alcohol at a sufficient rate.

Your Liver is Where the Real Work Happens

However, the cells of this vital organ really prefer getting fuel from fatty acids, which they package as triglycerides and send for storage to your body’s other tissues for later use.

Nonetheless, they put their preferences aside to prioritize alcohol when they encounter it. The consequence of this, however, is that a back log of fatty acids can form while they wait for your liver to process them.

And, even more unfortunately, the challenge of breaking down alcohol can permanently change your liver cells’ structure, affecting their ability to deal with their preferred fats. This is why so many heavy drinkers end up with fatty livers.

So just how good is the liver at breaking down alcohol? Well, a good guideline to keep in mind is that your liver can probably break down about one drink, as defined earlier, an hour. But this can vary widely depending on how big you are and if you have eaten anything.

But when you drink at a faster rate than your liver can work, alcohol starts to travel around your body wrecking its damage until your liver can get to it.

Your liver will give you a number of warnings if you are taking it for granted and drinking heavily for prolonged periods.

And a fatty liver is your first warning. It is the first stage of liver deterioration in heavy drinkers, and interferes with the distribution of oxygen and nutrients to the liver’s cells.

If this carries on long enough, you will get your second warning: Liver cells will die, forming fibrous scar tissue.

Some liver cells can regenerate if you improve your diet and stay away from alcohol.

However, during the third and final stage of deterioration, cirrhosis, the damage to your liver cells is at its least reversible.

Alcohol can Destroy Much More Than Your Liver

However, it is not just about your liver. Drinking too much can also

  • Increase risk of gouty arthritis
  • Increase the risk of cancer in the liver, pancreas, rectum, breast, mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus
  • Result in physical and behavioral abnormalities in an unborn child
  • Raise blood pressure, blood lipids and the risk of stroke and heart disease
  • Enlarge the kidneys and increase the risk of kidney failure
  • Increase the risk of protein-energy malnutrition
  • Cause neuropathy and dementia
  • Impair balance and memory
  • Lead to depression, anxiety and insomnia

Alcohol Treats Women Differently

All right, back to how alcohol treats men and women differently.

Physiology accounts for many of the reasons.

Diluting alcohol

Believe it or not, men’s bodies are better at diluting alcohol, simply because they are made up of more water – 61%, compared to 52% in women.

Breaking Down Alcohol

And if you remember that liver enzyme I mentioned earlier that breaks down alcohol — dehydrogenase, in case you don’t — well, women have less of it. This means women’s bodies take longer to break down alcohol.

Hormones

As with so many health-related issues, hormones also play a part. It seems that premenstrual hormonal changes in the days right before a woman gets her period also accelerate intoxication.

And birth control pills and other estrogen medications will reduce the rate at which alcohol is eliminated from the body.

Legally Drunk is Not About The Number of Drinks

But the effect alcohol has on you is not simply physical. There are emotional consequences, too, including increased confidence and Dutch courage.

So when does alcohol start to affect your mood?

To explain that, we need to start with a bit of law. Legally, being drunk is not about how many drinks you have had, but how much alcohol is swirling around your body. Being legally drunk is about your blood alcohol level, or blood alcohol content (BAC), which measures the alcohol present in the blood.

According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the legal definition of drunk, as far as driving goes, is .08.

BAC measures the ratio of alcohol in the blood. So, for example, a BAC of .10 means one part alcohol for every 1,000 parts of blood.

Your BAC is influenced by your gender, weight, how much and how recently you’ve eaten and how long you’ve been drinking, so it can be difficult to say how many drinks it takes to reach a given BAC. But if you want a rough guide, check out this Blood Alcohol Calculator.

Blood alcohol Affects How You Think, Feel, and Behave

All right, so now that we’ve established what is legally drunk and what your BAC is, let’s loosely look at how various BAC levels may affect you:

BAC LevelHow BAC level Affects How You Think, Feel, and Behave
0.02 - 0.03

  • Your mood might slightly intensify

0.05 - 0.06

  • You'll start to feel warm, relaxed and slightly sedated

  • Your emotions and behavior will become slightly exaggerated

  • There will be a slight reduction in your reaction time and fine-muscle coordination

  • You may not make the best decision about having another drink


0.07 - 0.09

  • A speech impairment and balance issues will become more apparent

  • Your motor coordination, hearing, and vision will become impaired

  • You will feel elated or depressed

  • You will have increased confidence

  • You may not realize you are experiencing impairments


0.11 - 0.12

  • You start to find coordination and balance a little difficult

  • You will experience clear impairment of mental faculties and judgment

0.14 - 0.15

  • Now, you will find it really difficult to maintain mental and physical control

  • You will have slurred speech, blurred vision and lack of motor skills

0.20

  • At this level, you will have loss of motor control

  • You will need help standing or walking

  • You will experience mental confusion

0.30 and up

  • You are experiencing severe intoxication

  • You may lose consciousness and require hospitalization

Then here is the hangover

After all is said and done, many of us do overindulge in our favorite tipple every now and again. And when we do, we often find ourselves with a hangover the following morning.

This is simply our body’s reaction to poisoning and withdrawal from alcohol — and slowing the withdrawal is one of the reasons many give for the hair of the dog mentioned earlier.

Most of the unpleasant symptoms that come with a hangover are actually due to two factors: a diuretic alcohol effect that leads to dehydration and the toxic effects of alcohol poisoning.

Typically beginning eight to 12 hours after your last drink, hangovers can lead to such symptoms as fatigue, depression, headache, thirst, nausea, vomiting, vertigo and sensitivity to light and sound, and reduced attention and concentration.

The severity of any of these symptoms varies with the individual and the volume of alcohol consumed.

Most of us will have our favorite cures, such as the aforementioned hair of the dog, a big greasy breakfast or a good workout to sweat the badness out of us. However, the truth is that another cliché, time is a great healer, really is the only sure cure for a hangover.

But if that’s not good enough, there are a few things you can do to make yourself feel better:

  • Sip water or fruit juice to avoid dehydration
  • Snack on such bland foods as toast and crackers to boost your blood sugar and settle your stomach
  • Have some thick soup to help restore salt and potassium levels
  • Eat some foods and drinks with fructose, such as honey or fruit juice, to help your body burn alcohol faster
  • Take a small dose of a pain reliever
  • Try and get some more sleep

And if you want to try some vitamins and herbs to help your body clear toxins, try some

  • B vitamins
  • Vitamin C
  • Evening primrose oil
  • Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum
  • Globe artichoke, or cynara scolymus

Eat Before You Drink

Ok, so we have gone through how alcohol goes through your body, including how moderate drinking has some health benefits, as well as how alcohol affects your emotions and behavior and just how sick it can make you feel the next day.

So what’s the best way for us to behave next time we are tempted by our favorite poison.

Well, we should definitely try and eat something first.

Your body will absorb alcohol faster on an empty stomach.

Second, slow down, drinking is not a competition. Try and pace yourself at one drink an hour, to give your liver a chance.

Choose your drink carefully. We haven’t really touched on it. But drinks with a lower level of a congeners, such as vodka and gin, are less likely to cause hangovers than drinks heavy with these fermentation byproducts, including brandy and whiskey.

And try and drink some water in between drinks. A glass of water after each drink will help you stay hydrated – and may result in you drinking less alcohol.

Finally, try to know your limits and resist the temptation for that naughty drink that takes you over the edge and to god knows where!

And let me know in the comments below if you have a hangover cure you believe defies the science and really works.

Natural Herbs and Vitamins to Help detox Your Body of Alcohol

Here’s a list of herb and vitamin sources that will help your body break down that alcohol a little faster:

  • B-Complex by Vital Nutrients is a high potency B vitamin complex supplement that.supports a healthy nervous system
  • Lypo-Spheric Vitamin C from LivOn Laboratories is many times more powerful than other oral forms of vitamin C and also highly bio-available
  • Perque Potent C Guard contains a balance of essential minerals — calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc — in addition to vitamin C
  • Evening Primrose Oil from Barleans is a supplemental source of all natural gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), the most health promoting omega-6 fatty acid
  • Evening Primrose Oil from PhysioLogics supplies 45mg of GLA per softgel and up to 270mg per day to help provide nutritional support for overall health
  • Super Milk Thistle X from Integrative Therapeutics is a liver cleansing formula that supports bile flow and strengthens your liver at a cellular level
  • Silymarin 80 Standardized Milk Thistle Extract from Metagenics provides milk thistle extract standardized to 80% silymarin for supporting healthy liver function
  • Livdetox from Douglas Laboratories, with globe artichoke, may help protect liver health from environmental toxins with a blend of nutrient and herbal ingredients
References

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