Figure on These Factors When Drinking Alcohol
If you drink, you most likely want to drink reasonably and responsibly. But what are the factors that can help you keep a confident check on your blood-alcohol content—and your mental faculties—so you don't embarrass yourself or, worse, hurt yourself or others?
According to the CDC and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a number of variables go into the answer: your body weight; amount of muscle or fat you have; your gender; your age; the other chemicals in your drinks; how fast you are drinking; the amount of food in your stomach; your drinking history; your tolerance to alcohol; other drugs in your system; your general health; and your emotional state.
Alcohol usually is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract within 30 to 60 minutes after you drink it. Your stomach absorbs about 20 percent, and the remainder is absorbed in the small intestine. About 10 percent of alcohol is eliminated from your body by the kidneys and lungs. The amount of alcohol exhaled through the lungs is used to accurately estimate blood alcohol concentration. Inexpensive electronic devices that measure exhaled alcohol to estimate blood levels are available from stores.
For most people, intoxication occurs after two to three drinks. An average drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. Your body metabolism processes about one average drink an hour.
Alcohol is a small, water-soluble molecule that is distributed in the body's water. It is a depressant that inhibits responses of the central nervous system. In small quantities, it can impair coordination and thinking. In large quantities in a short period of time, it can be fatal. Excessive amounts over a long period can cause liver damage.
The extent of alcohol's effect on the central nervous system depends upon how much is in your blood and how much blood you have. Two of the main determinants for that are body weight and the amount of water in your body. Women have less body water than men of similar body weight, so a woman will tend to have a higher blood alcohol level than a man of the same weight after drinking the same amount of alcohol. As a person ages, body water usually decreases and body fat increases, so blood alcohol levels rise more easily.
Generally, the lower your body weight, the less blood and water you'll have. So, smaller people usually will have a higher ratio of alcohol in their blood if they drink the same amount of alcohol as a heavier person.
Men and women
Men generally can drink more alcohol than women of the same size before they show the effect of alcohol. Many studies over the last 10 years, however, have shown that women's bodies tend to get rid of the alcohol about 10 percent faster than men's bodies.
A woman's body also absorbs and metabolizes alcohol differently from a man's, according to the National Institutes of Health. Women have higher blood alcohol levels than men do after consuming the same amount of alcohol. Women also are more susceptible to alcoholic liver disease, heart muscle damage and brain damage. Women are affected more because of their lower levels of body water and because the stomach enzyme ADH, which metabolizes alcohol, is not as active as in men.
Because people usually have a higher fat-to-muscle ratio as they get older, they become less able to maintain tolerable ratios of alcohol in the blood as younger people of the same weight. (Women and older people who maintain a higher-than-average muscle mass will have a greater ability to maintain lower alcohol levels in the blood.)
Other chemicals in the drink
The water in beer or wine provides a little extra buffer for the alcohol over a plain shot of liquor. So a person might feel the effects of beer or wine a little less. The carbon dioxide in champagne, however, increases the rate of absorption of alcohol causing a more rapid effect.
Speed of drinking
Because the body generally metabolizes about a half-ounce of pure alcohol every hour, that is the top rate at which people generally can drink to keep alcohol levels stable in their system. One beer or one shot of alcohol or one glass of wine is equal to about a half ounce of pure alcohol. The metabolic rate varies for everyone, so you must be careful to check your own mental functioning when you drink to verify your own metabolism.
Food in stomach
If you eat an average meal before drinking, the absorption of the alcohol will be slowed considerably—as much as 10 to 50 percent initially. But this effect is temporary.
The type of food consumed also is a factor in slowing the absorption of alcohol. The more fat in the meal, the longer it will take the stomach to process the food and the slower the absorption of alcohol.
Drinking history, tolerance
The bodies of chronic users have often reached a higher metabolic rate for alcohol, so their systems actually can purge the alcohol at a much higher rate than casual drinkers' systems. On top of that, the chronic users' organs sometimes develop less sensitivity to alcohol, so the actual effects of the same alcohol blood level for them would be less than for the casual drinker. But the destructive effects of alcohol on the liver and other parts of the chronic user's body can be devastating over time.
Alcohol reacts negatively with more than 150 medications, according to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. Common examples include most barbiturates, antibiotics, blood thinners and anticonvulsants (seizure medications). Some drugs, such as aspirin, may slow the absorption of alcohol from the stomach causing higher blood alcohol levels. Check with your doctor before drinking alcohol with any medication.
Physical and emotional health
People who are fatigued or highly stressed out usually will have a noticeably stronger reaction to alcohol, possibly feeling greater depression or some other exaggerated response to normal levels of alcohol.
Because the effects of alcohol usually are subtle at first, you may not recognize that your awareness and responses are compromised.
Examples of drink equivalence
The NIAAA has developed information on standard drink equivalents and the number of standard drinks in different container sizes. You can access this information at: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/practitioner/pocketguide/pocket_guide2.htm.