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At Healthfully, we strive to deliver objective content that is accurate and up-to-date. Our team periodically reviews articles in order to ensure content quality. The sources cited below consist of evidence from peer-reviewed journals, prominent medical organizations, academic associations, and government data.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Alcohol and Public Health, Frequently Asked Questions; 2010
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Alcohol Use; 2010
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Alcohol, also known as ethanol, is found in beer, wine and hard liquor, and is produced as a result of the fermentation of yeast, starches and sugars. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 52 percent of adults aged 18 years or older are regular drinkers of alcoholic beverages, consuming at least 12 drinks in the past year, and 13 percent are irregular drinkers, consuming 11 drinks or less in the past year 12.
If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
Absorption of Alcohol
When you consume alcoholic beverages, the alcohol is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and small intestine. Once alcohol enters the blood, it has the ability to reach every organ of the body. Your blood circulates the alcohol through your bloodstream into your liver, where it is oxidized. This process causes the alcohol to become detoxified, so it cannot harm your cells and your organs and is safely removed from the body. The speed at which the liver can metabolize the alcohol depends on the amount of metabolizing enzymes present, which can vary from person to person.
Blood Alcohol Concentration
Blood alcohol concentration is a measurement of how much alcohol, by weight, is in a certain volume of your blood. Drinking a lot of alcohol at one time can increase your blood alcohol level to the point of intoxication. Your liver can only metabolize a small amount of alcohol at a time, so the rest of the alcohol in your blood circulates through your bloodstream until your liver can metabolize it. Your blood alcohol level will gradually drop over time, after you stop drinking, because the liver continues to metabolize the alcohol until it is gone.
Lack of Food Can Affect Intoxication
The reaction that you experience from drinking alcohol can be affected by the amount of food that you consumed before drinking. Absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream can be slowed down if you have enjoyed a meal. With a full stomach, it takes 1 to 6 hours to reach peak alcohol absorption, resulting in a 9 percent to 23 percent lower blood alcohol concentration. Conversely, without food in your stomach, alcohol can be absorbed at a much more rapid rate, and therefore can cause you to feel the effects of intoxication much faster. If you haven’t eaten, you will achieve peak alcohol absorption in 0.5 to 2 hours. Indeed, if you consume alcoholic beverages on an empty stomach, you can achieve higher peak blood alcohol levels.
Alcohol's Effects on the Body
The higher your blood alcohol level, the more pronounced and obvious the effects of alcohol are going to be on your body. Alcohol acts as a depressant against the nervous system. This results in impaired brain function, negatively affecting judgment, reaction time, balance and motor skills. Excessive alcohol use over time can contribute to cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, certain types of cancer, high blood pressure and psychological disorders. Heavy drinking can also lead to alcoholism.
Conversely, without food in your stomach, alcohol can be absorbed at a much more rapid rate, and therefore can cause you to feel the effects of intoxication much faster. This process causes the alcohol to become detoxified, so it cannot harm your cells and your organs and is safely removed from the body. With a full stomach, it takes 1 to 6 hours to reach peak alcohol absorption, resulting in a 9 percent to 23 percent lower blood alcohol concentration.
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