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February 13, 2019

How Long Does it Take for Alcohol to Metabolize

We currently live in a binge drinking culture where 1 in 6 American adults will binge drink once per week, consuming approximately 7 drinks per night out. Studies indicate that rates of alcoholism can be affected by the way an individual absorbs and metabolizes ethanol, which is controlled by both genetic and environmental factors. The variance in alcohol metabolism means that certain people are predisposed to alcoholism, while others may be buffered by its adverse effects.

Because certain bodies absorb, break down, and eliminate alcohol differently, it is crucial that you know how your body metabolizes alcohol, and have an idea of how long it will take for this process to occur. This knowledge can help you avoid making poor decisions such as driving under the influence, drinking too much, or engaging in unsafe sex.

This article will provide an in-depth look at how long it takes for alcohol to metabolize, what are the accompanying symptoms, and how to help an alcoholic friend go back to a sober life. If you or someone you know is suffering from an addiction and are looking for an alcohol detox, Beach House Recovery can help. If you think you are an alcoholic or your friend may be suffering from an addiction, this article is for you.

Alcohol and Your Body

Alcohol is a drug composed of ethanol with an alcohol structured grouping, meaning a carbon atom of an alkyl group attached to an OH (hydroxyl) group. This depressant binds to nerve receptors and creates a numbing effect on your central nervous system (CNS), hindering its reception of neurotransmitter action impulses. This impedance of the CNS in turn effects:

  • Motor function
  • Information processing
  • Communication
  • Pain processing
  • Fine motor skills
  • Limbic system (Emotional core)

In moderate amounts, alcohol and your body can function in relative harmony, but as you’ve likely experienced, it is all too easy to cross that invisible divide separating the pleasant effects of alcohol from the not so pleasant effects. This point of no return is affected by your body’s limited ability to absorb and metabolize the alcohol.

How Your Body Absorbs Alcohol

Although alcohol passes through the digestive system, its simple compound structure does not require that it be digested and broken down like food or other drugs. As a result, your body begins to absorb the alcohol and feel its effects on the central nervous system immediately.

  • Within 30 seconds of consumption – Some of the alcohol enters the bloodstream via the small blood vessels responsible for transporting nutrients and water throughout your body. Part of this will travel to your brain and begin hampering the CNS.
  • 5 minutes after consumption – The alcohol then moves to the stomach. Approximately 20% of it will be absorbed directly into the bloodstream through your stomach tissue. A small percentage will remain stored in fat until it is later expelled via breath and sweat.
  • 20 minutes after consumption – The 80% of alcohol left reaches the small intestines and the blood vessels therein, the pancreas, and then the liver where it will be metabolized.

An average healthy adult will typically feel the initial effects of their first drink somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes; however, the absorption process could be deterred by food in the stomach, which absorbs the alcohol and prevents it from contacting the stomach lining. Slower absorption rates increase the time it takes for you to become intoxicated.

How Long Does It Take for Alcohol to Metabolize?

Metabolism is the process by which your liver converts alcohol into less toxic substances and eventually expels them from your body. The liver contains two enzymes known as alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase, which begin breaking down alcohol instantly. On average, your liver can metabolize 1 standard drink per hour. A standard drink is:

  • 5 ounces of hard liquor (rum, gin, vodka, whiskey, tequila)
  • 12 ounces of regular beer
  • 8-9 ounces of craft beer
  • 5 ounces of wine for both red and white

The rate of metabolization is equal to .015g/100mL per hour, which means there is a blood alcohol level (BAC) reduction of .015 per hour. So, if a 180 lbs male had a night of heavy drinking, consuming 10 drinks throughout the course of the night, his metabolization timeline would look something like this:  

Time                BAC

1:00 am           0.175

2:00 am           0.16

3:00 am           0.145

4:00 am           0.13

5:00 am           0.115

6:00 am           0.085

7:00 am           0.07 (Beneath the legal drinking limit)

8:00 am           0.055

9:00 am           0.04

10:00 am         0.025

11:00 am         0.01

12:00 pm        0.00

So, it would take his body eleven hours to fully metabolize a blood alcohol concentration of .175.

Factors that Affect Alcohol Absorption

While alcohol metabolism is relatively constant for everyone (.015%/hour), the rate at which a person absorbs alcohol can vary dramatically. This, in turn, affects how quickly a person’s blood alcohol content will increase.

Note: You should be aware that despite popular drinking myths, alcohol absorption is not affected by the type of alcohol you drink. Some people incorrectly believe that tequila gets them drunker than vodka, but that is not the case. The same is true about whether you take a shot or have a mixed drink; when it comes to absorption, it’s all the same. 

Factors that affect alcohol absorption include:

  • Food – A 2005 study found that, “Absorption is quickest when alcohol is drunk on an empty stomach. Food, particularly carbohydrates, retards absorption: blood concentrations may not reach a quarter of those achieved on an empty stomach.” So if you have a meal of fats, proteins, and carbs prior to drinking, you will absorb alcohol at a rate that is 4 times as slow.
  • Drink proportion – While a standard shot is 1.5oz, certain bars may pour heavier or lighter shots. A person drinking .2oz shots will naturally absorb alcohol at a faster rate than someone having a standard drink.
  • Rate of consumption – Another study on alcohol metabolization found that, “Peak blood alcohol levels are higher if ethanol is ingested as a single dose rather than several smaller doses, probably because alcohol concentration gradient will be higher in the former case.” So, if you chug your drinks in one go rather than sip them over time, your BAC will be significantly higher.
  • Gender – Men metabolize alcohol quicker than women. Their higher water-body mass percentage and decreased fat concentrations combined with a more active alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme results in guys being able to drink more than women with less effects.
  • Genetics – A person’s genetics plays a heavy role in the presence and efficacy of the two main enzymes responsible for metabolizing alcohol. Their genetic history can give them a natural tolerance for alcohol.
  • Race – Quite similar to genetics, a person’s race, particularly their liver mass, can affect the rate at which they can expel and metabolize alcohol.
  • Presence of drugs or medications – Various medications or illicit drugs can alter the rate at which your body eliminates alcohol. Such drugs or medications can slow down the rate at which your enzymes metabolize.

What is a Dangerous Blood Alcohol Concentration Level?

The best way to measure your BAC is with an alcohol test (like a breathalyzer). There are a variety of portable or personal breathalyzers you can buy so that you can test your BAC to figure out whether you are safe to drive. That said, even if you are below the legal .08, your ability to operate a motor vehicle can be severely hampered by the alcohol present in your system.

Reaching the .08 BAC threshold does not take a whole lot of alcohol. A 125 lbs woman, for example, could reach that in just 2 beers. Specific BAC levels can have the following effects on a person and their driving:

  • .02 BAC – You may experience an altered or elevated mood, moderate loss of judgment, moderately increased body temperature, and relaxation.
  • For driving – Diminishing ability to rapidly track moving targets and concentrate on two things at once.
  • .05 BAC – Behavior can begin to be exaggerated or goofy. Loss of small-muscle control (eye focus), impaired judgment, feelings of well-being, lowered inhibitions and alertness.
  • For driving – Lowered coordination, ability to track moving objects, and response to emergencies. Difficulty steering within the lines.
  • .08 BAC – Muscle coordination significantly decreases, affecting speech, vision, reaction times, hearing, and balance. Impaired judgment, reasoning, memory, and self-control.
  • For driving – Impaired perception and judgment. Problems with speed control, concentration, and maintaining a straight course. Processing capability is severely hampered.
  • .10 BAC – Evident depreciation of motor control and reaction times. Decreased coordination, slurred speech, and slowed reasoning.
  • For driving – Increased difficulty at maintaining lane position, proper speed, and braking correctly. Driving becomes erratic and inconsistent.
  • .15 BAC – Severely impacted muscle control and balance. Vomiting and nausea can occur.
  • For Driving – Serious driving impairment. Inability to control the vehicle, concentrate and process audio and visual cues.
  • .20 BAC – At this point, vomiting is likely, and a person will feel strong confusion and disorientation. They may require assistance in walking or even standing. Falling is common and a person is at risk of serious injury, but because pain sensations are hampered, they may go unnoticed. Blackouts are typical at this point.
  • For Driving – Extreme driving impairment. A danger to everyone on the road, including themselves. The odds of a serious or fatal car crash are incredibly likely.
  • .25 BAC – Severe impairment of all mental, physical, emotional and sensory processing functions. High risk of aspirating on vomit or seriously injuring oneself.
  • .3 BAC – Alcohol stupor occurs and the brain shuts down, leaving a person unresponsive to stimuli. Complete inability to process what is going on or to respond to it.
  • .35 BAC – Tantamount to surgical anesthesia. Passing out and cessation of breath is likely. Intoxicated delirium and brain dysfunction are probable.
  • .4+ BAC – Coma or sudden death is almost guaranteed due to the heart arrest or complete cessation of breath.

How long can alcohol be detected?

If you have to be drug tested for alcohol, you should be aware of how long it can be detected. Generally speaking, knowing exactly how long alcohol stays in your system will be slightly different from one person to another. There are five main methods of alcohol detection including blood, breath, urine, saliva, and hair.

  • In your blood – 6 hours
  • On your breath – 12 to 24 hours
  • In your urine – 12 to 24 hours
  • In your saliva – 12 -24 hours
  • In your hair follicles – Up to 90 days

Long-Term Health Effects of Binge Drinking Alcohol

Binge drinking and regular alcohol abuse in large amounts can have serious and long-lasting consequences on your health. Learning how to stop binge drinking is critical to an individual’s overall health, as this type of drinking often leads to an addiction. The most obvious is alcohol dependence and addiction, wherein the body becomes accustomed to the consistent presence of alcohol and requires it. Other long-term effects include: 

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Amnesia
  • Family issues and broken relationships
  • Financial problems
  • Gastritis
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased likelihood of injury from guns, sexual assault, or domestic violence
  • Increased risk of workplace injuries
  • Lasting brain damage
  • Liver disease
  • Loss of a job
  • Malnutrition
  • Mouth cancer
  • Nerve damage
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Stroke
  • Throat cancer
  • Ulcers
  • Unintended injuries like falls, burns, car crashes, or drowning
  • Vitamin B1 deficiency

Alcohol Withdrawal

As a person’s alcohol abuse continues to worsen, the body becomes dependent on alcohol to function normally. Once the alcohol has been metabolized and left the system, the body starts to malfunction and experience withdrawals. Since alcohol is a depressant, the body has to work on overdrive to neutralize the retarding effects. When it is suddenly gone, the body is still firing on all cylinders and quickly begins to experience dysfunction.

This dysfunction is characterized by withdrawal symptoms, which can vary from moderate to severe depending on several factors including:

  • Frequency of alcohol consumption
  • Amount of alcohol consumption
  • Length of habit
  • Co-occurring disorders
  • Other drug abuse
  • Genetic history
  • Gender
  • Physical health

Although they may vary in intensity, expected withdrawal symptoms are:

  • Aches
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings
  • Dehydration
  • Grand Mal Seizures (in severe cases)
  • Delirium Tremens (in severe cases)
  • Hallucinations
  • Headaches
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Mood shifts
  • Drowsiness
  • Alertness
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Shakes
  • Rapidly shifting body temperature

Seeking Assistance

Now that you know how your body metabolizes alcohol and how quickly that may occur, it is critical that you self-assess and ask yourself whether your drinking habits have become a problem. If you experience symptoms of withdrawal and notice patterns of alcoholism in your life, it is crucial that you get help immediately.

As you may likely know, withdrawal symptoms can be quite unpleasant, so it is recommended that you safely detox at an inpatient alcohol treatment facility such as Beach House Recovery. There, you can receive the treatment and assistance you need under the protective watch of medical professionals. For severe cases, we also offer long term residential treatment options as well.

Sources:

CDC, “Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking.”  https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

NCBI, “The Genetics of Alcohol Metabolism: Role of Alcohol Dehydrogenase and Aldehyde Dehydrogenase Variants.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860432/

NCBI, “Alcohol’s Effects on Brain and Behavior.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625995/

NCBI, “Alcohol in the Body.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC543875/

NCBI, “Alcohol Metabolism.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3484320/

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