How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?
For every good news story about the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, there seems to be just as many warnings about the dark side of drinking. As we’ll see here, when it comes to alcohol, the devil is in the details. The level of risk is dependent on many factors, including the type of drink, the quantity and frequency, and even your sex. Being aware of how alcohol affects the body will help you assess the potential dangers in your daily glass of cabernet or occasional martini.
Immediate Effects of Alcohol
When you drink alcohol, it is absorbed through the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises very quickly: within five minutes of having a drink, there is enough alcohol in your blood to measure, and within ten you will start to feel the effects. Blood alcohol content will peak about 35-45 minutes later.
Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows down the central nervous system. As WebMD notes, the initial feeling it gives can be quite the opposite: alcohol reaches the brain within minutes and “gives the temporary impression of being a stimulant.” In other words, it can make you feel happy and chatty at first, but, in larger doses, will ultimately make you feel tired while also causing the various impairments associated with drunkenness–slurred speech, lack of coordination and loss of balance, and even memory loss.
The liver is the organ responsible for metabolizing alcohol. Whatever is left after its enzymes break alcohol down is excreted through the lungs–which is why breathalyzer tests work–and through the kidneys via urine.
The liver can handle about 7-14 g of pure alcohol per hour. (More on what that looks like below.) Ideally you should pace yourself so your liver can break down one drink’s worth of alcohol before you have another. That means limiting yourself to one drink an hour. If you consume more than that, your liver won’t be able to process it fast enough, your BAC will rise, and you’ll start to feel drunk. Your BAC will not begin to drop until you stop drinking, and even then it only decreases by 0.01% per hour. The legal definition of drunkenness is a BAC of 0.8%, so if you do the math, you’ll see that a tipsy feeling takes a long time to go away. No amount of coffee, cold water in the face, or sleep will speed up the process either.
How Much Alcohol is Actually In Your Glass?
There is much confusion over what constitutes a “serving” of alcohol. In fact, most people are surprised at how small a serving really is. As noted above, the body can only metabolize a maximum of 14 g of pure alcohol in an hour. In real terms, that means:
● 12 oz of beer (at 5% alcohol per volume)
● 5 oz of table wine (at 12% alcohol per volume)
● 1.5 oz of liquor (at 40% alcohol per volume)
Note the alcohol per volume. The list here is pretty standard, but there are variations within each product category. Some strong beers can exceed 8% per volume, and wines can range from 12%-15%.
As for how many servings you should have, the typical answer is “a moderate amount,” but there is no clear guideline on what that really means. An article in Forbes shared recommendations from the US and various European countries and they vary from 1 drink a day for women and 2 for men (US) to 7 per day for men and women (Spain). Erring on the side of caution, most people in North America stick with the most conservative numbers: no more than 4 drinks in one day and a maximum of 14 per week for men, and a maximum of three drinks per day and 7 drinks per week for women.
Why Some People Can Hold Their Liquor Better Than Others
A variety of factors affect the rate at which alcohol is metabolized. Having food in your stomach can slow the absorption of alcohol. In fact, BAC can be up to three times higher when you drink on an empty stomach. If you are a woman, alcohol will likely affect you more acutely than it does the men you know. Women have less dehydrogenase–the enzyme used by the liver to break down alcohol–so alcohol enters their bloodstreams faster. Women also have less water and more fat in their bodies than men, and tend to be smaller in size, all of which means that alcohol becomes more concentrated in females as compared to males.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Consumption
Many of the long-term health effects of alcohol stem from chronic heavy drinking. These include:
● heart problems, strokes, high blood pressure, liver disease, and pancreatitis;
● higher risk of contracting oral cancers and cancer of the liver or breast;
● a weakened immune system and greater susceptibility to ailments like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and HIV.
Long-term heavy drinking also “disturbs” the brain by shrinking brain mass and increasing the size of the brain’s inner cavity. These changes can affect mood, motor coordination, sleep, memory, and learning.
Binge drinking can cause problems too, including heart arrhythmia, trouble sleeping, gastrointestinal disturbances, memory loss, and general sluggishness.
Consuming a few drinks a week is generally thought to be okay but it is critical to pay attention to serving size. Occasional drinking of an actual serving–not your favourite large wine goblet or the 18 oz draught at the local pub–has been associated with a reduction in heart disease among otherwise healthy people. If you go beyond recommended levels on a regular basis, you could be at higher risk for ill effects. Women may be especially susceptible. A 2009 study showed that even one drink per day could increase the risk of various cancers, including breast, mouth, throat, and liver. The connection between moderate alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk was recently corroborated in a study by the World Cancer Research Fund. A longitudinal Swedish study also showed a higher risk of death from cancer among women who regularly drink spirits. Women who drink regularly may also have a higher risk of liver disease than men.
The Final Analysis
If you are in good general health, lead an active lifestyle, and eat a balanced diet, moderate consumption of alcohol is probably safe. Just be sure you don’t cross the fine line between moderation and excess: keep to standard serving sizes; pay attention to the amount of alcohol per volume in your drink of choice; try to avoid binge drinking; give your body time to metabolize alcohol if you are consuming more than one drink at a time; and be sure to have a few alcohol-free days each week. Lastly, if you have a family risk of cancer or chronic illnesses, proceed with caution when it comes to alcohol. Abstention might be your best option.