Alcohol & Your Body

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.

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 having a lot of shots or playing drinking games can result in high blood alcohol concentrations that last for several hours.
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For an interactive look at alcohol moving through the human body, you can go to College Drinking Prevention.

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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.

Beer
One drink = one 12-ounce beer. This is normal-strength beer (5% alcohol).

Malt liquor ranges from 6-9% alcohol, so 12 ounces of malt liquor is approximately 1.5 drinks; 40 ounces of malt liquor is 4.5 drinks.

Liquor
One drink = 1.5 ounces of liquor (40% alcohol or 80 proof). This is how much whiskey, vodka, gin, tequila, brandy, cognac, etc. is in a measured mixed drink or in a standard-size shot glass. Remember that mixed drinks may not be measured and often contain far more than 1.5 ounces of alcohol.

Grain alcohol (Everclear) is 95% alcohol or 190 proof and some rums like Bacardi 151 are 151 proof or 75% alcohol.  These liquors are banned in many states because of their high alcohol content.

Wine
One drink = 5 ounces of standard wine (12% alcohol).  This is most table wines: white, red, rosé, champagne.

One drink = 3-4 ounces of fortified wine (17% alcohol).  This is wine with 13% or more alcohol content, such as sherry or port.

Click here for a drink chart with other drinks and drink sizes.

Knowing your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC)

Understanding BAC is key to understanding how alcohol affects your body and the danger zones of alcohol poisoning. BAC measures the ratio of alcohol in the blood. So, a BAC of .10 means one part alcohol for every 1000 parts of blood.

To calculate your BAC, select the appropriate chart--and then find the row with your approximate weight. Then select the number of drinks consumed. This BAC figure would result if the total number of drinks were consumed in one hour. The Time Factor table can be used to calculate BAC over more than one hour.

For Males


Body weight
(lbs)

1
drink

2 drinks

3 drinks

4 drinks

5 drinks

6 drinks

7 drinks

8 drinks

9 drinks

10 drinks

100

.043

.087

.130

.174

.217

.261

.304

.348

.391

.435

125

.034

.069

.103

.139

.173

.209

.242

.278

.312

.346

150

.029

.058

.087

.116

.145

.174

.203

.232

.261

.290

175

.025

.050

.075

.100

.125

.150

.175

.200

.225

.250

200

.022

.043

.065

.087

.108

.130

.152

.174

.195

.217

225

.019

.039

.058

.078

.097

.117

.136

.156

.175

.198

250

.017

.035

.052

.070

.087

.105

.122

.139

.156

.173

For Females


Body weight
(lbs)

1
drink

2 drinks

3 drinks

4 drinks

5 drinks

6 drinks

7 drinks

8 drinks

9 drinks

10 drinks

100

.050

.101

.152

.203

.253

.304

.355

.406

.456

.507

125

.040

.080

.120

.162

.202

.244

.282

.324

.364

.404

150

.034

.068

.101

.135

.169

.203

.237

.271

.304

.338

175

0.29

.058

.087

.117

.146

.175

.204

.233

.262

.292

200

.026

.050

.076

.101

.126

.152

.177

.203

.227

.253

225

.022

.045

.068

.091

.113

.136

.159

.182

.204

.227

250

.020

.041

.061

.082

.101

.122

.142

.162

.182

.202

 

The Time Factor

Hours since first drink

Subtract this from BAC

1

.015

2

.030

3

.045

4

.060

5

.075

6

.090

Source: Evans, Glen and Robert O'Brien (1991) The Encyclopedia of Alcoholism.

Note: these charts give you good general guidelines, but there are many factors involved in a person's reaction to alcohol, including body composition, use of medication or other drugs, mood changes and metabolism.

This link can give you more specific BAC information based on your weight and gender.

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

Now that you know how to calculate BAC, see how alcohol affects your body at different levels.

0.02 - 0.03 Legal definition of intoxication in R.I. for people under 21 years of age. Few obvious effects; slight intensification of mood.

0.05 - 0.06 Feeling of warmth, relaxation, mild sedation; exaggeration of emotion and behavior; slight decrease in reaction time and in fine-muscle coordination; impaired judgment about continued drinking.

0.07 - 0.09 More noticeable speech impairment and disturbance of balance; impaired motor coordination, hearing and vision; feeling of elation or depression; increased confidence; may not recognize impairment.

0.08 Legal definition of intoxication in R.I. for people 21 years and older.

0.11 - 0.12 Coordination and balance becoming difficult; distinct impairment of mental faculties and judgment.

0.14 - 0.15 Major impairment of mental and physical control; slurred speech, blurred vision and lack of motor skills; needs medical evaluation.

0.20 Loss of motor control; must have assistance standing or walking; mental confusion; needs medical assistance.

0.30 and higher Severe intoxication; potential loss of consciousness; needs hospitalization.

 

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 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.

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

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.

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What other factors affect your response to alcohol?

Food
Having food in your stomach can have a big 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.

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.

Family History
Research studies have found that children of alcoholics are four times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems.  However, many people with a family history of alcoholism do not become alcoholics.  Additional factors that increase the risk of developing alcoholism include having an alcoholic parent who is depressed or has other psychological problems, growing up in a family where both parents abuse alcohol or other drugs, having a parent with severe alcohol abuse problems and living in a family where conflicts lead to aggression and violence.

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. 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 aspirate on their vomit or slip into a coma. If someone has passed out, call EMS immediately (401.863-4111). S/he needs immediate medical attention.

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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.
  • Start out slowly to see how the alcohol is affecting you.
  • 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 rehydrated.
  • 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.

Links you can use

e-CHUG
e-CHUG is a free, anonymous assessment tool that provides individualized feedback on the role alcohol is playing in your life. You can also see how your use compares with other college students. If you are a Brown student and would like to talk to someone about your use, you can call Health Education at 401.863-2794 for a confidential appointment or click here for other resources.

The Blood Alcohol Calculator
Learn how gender, body weight, food and how fast you drink can affect your blood alcohol concentration. This is an interactive tool that shows you how much alcohol is in different drinks and how your BAC would compare to male and female friends.

College Drinking: Changing the Culture
Click on the section for students to find out about myths and facts, take an interactive tour of the flow of alcohol through the body or learn about alcohol poisoning. You can use the Calorie Counter to learn about the number of calories in different drinks and you can send an eCard to someone who's drinking worries you.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
NIAAA publishes research on many aspects of alcohol, answers frequently asked questions and provides pamphlets and brochures. The research papers and reports can be downloaded.

Online Alcohol Screening
This anonymous survey gives you feedback about the likely risks of your alcohol use.

 

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Disclaimer: Health Education is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Education maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Education offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.