Alcohol affects the body in many ways, and it’s important for our health and our safety that we understand how it does. When you drink alcohol, it gets absorbed into your bloodstream and affects every part of your body. In the long term, drinking too much alcohol can put your health at serious risk.

Here’s a breakdown of what happens when you drink alcohol, and how it affects your body:

How alcohol gets absorbed in our body

Alcohol can easily get absorbed directly into the bloodstream when it passes through the small intestines via the stomach.

With a simple mechanism of diffusion into the blood, alcohol gets absorbed in all parts of the gastrointestinal tract. The small intestines however, happens to be the most vulnerable of all gastrointestinal tract parts and receives the maximum impact from alcohol mainly because it has a large surface area.

Any food present in the stomach slows the speed of alcohol absorption but it cannot prevent or reduce its intoxicating impact on drunkenness. Any amount of alcohol consumed will get mixed with the bloodstream no matter what quantity of food is present in the stomach.

It has been found that if an individual is fasting, typically 20% to 25% of the total alcohol dosage gets absorbed from the stomach and 75% to 80% from the small intestine. Due to this, the blood alcohol content (BAC) in fasting individuals can reach its peak BAC within 0.5 to 2 hours with an average of 0.75 – 1.35 hours (it varies according to dosage and time of last meal consumption).

On the other hand, non-fasting individuals reach its peak BAC level within 1 hour and in some cases, can take as much as 6 hours with an average duration of average 1.06 – 2.12 hours.

In the human body, alcohol spreads throughout organs with water content but not in the fatty tissue. Alcohol has a greater affinity with water and therefore, gets absorbed wherever water if present – such as in body fluids and tissues since a lot of water is present there.

The absorbed alcohol reaches every region of the body and once this process gets completed, a quantitative balanced is reached, which means that blood in every portion of the body contains an equal amount of alcohol.

Alcohol’s Effect on the Body

Most of alcohol’s impact is on the nerve cells present in the brain since it interferes with the communication process between other cells and nerve cells. This suppresses the actions of excitatory nerve pathways and amplifies the actions of inhibitory nerve pathways.

Alcohol augments the impact of inhibitory neurotransmitters such as GABA and slows down the impacts of excitatory neurotransmitters e.g. Glutamine. The aftereffect of this increment in an inhibitor and weakening of an excitor’s impact is that the person becomes sluggish. This is why drunken people react and behave in a certain way. It simply slows down the overall functioning and reflexive responses of human body.

The body’s response to alcohol is primarily in stages, which relate to a gradual increase in BAC.

Stages of Alcohol Intoxication

(g/100 ml of blood
or g/210 l of breath)
Stage Clinical symptoms
0.01 – 0.05 Subclinical Behavior nearly normal by ordinary observation
0.03 – 0.12 Euphoria Mild euphoria, sociability, talkitiveness
Increased self-confidence; decreased inhibitions
Diminution of attention, judgment and control
Beginning of sensory-motor impairment
Loss of efficiency in finer performance tests
0.09 – 0.25 Excitement Emotional instability; loss of critical judgment
Impairment of perception, memory and comprehension
Decreased sensitory response; increased reaction time
Reduced visual acuity; peripheral vision and glare recovery
Sensory-motor incoordination; impaired balance
0.18 – 0.30 Confusion Disorientation, mental confusion; dizziness
Exaggerated emotional states
Disturbances of vision and of perception of color, form, motion and dimensions
Increased pain threshold
Increased muscular incoordination; staggering gait; slurred speech
Apathy, lethargy
0.25 – 0.40 Stupor General inertia; approaching loss of motor functions
Markedly decreased response to stimuli
Marked muscular incoordination; inability to stand or walk
Vomiting; incontinence
Impaired consciousness; sleep or stupor
0.35 – 0.50 Coma Complete unconsciousness
Depressed or abolished reflexes
Subnormal body temperature
Impairment of circulation and respiration
Possible death
0.45 + Death Death from respiratory arrest

Table: “Stages of alcohol intoxication” by K.M. Dubowski, one of the leading experts on the medicolegal aspects of alcohol use in the United States.

How alcohol exits the body

When the liver breaks down 91% of alcohol then a small fraction of it leaves the body via urine, breath and sweat. However, since liver functions at a fixed pace, removal of about three-quarters of standard alcohol drink takes at least an hour.

Sobering of the person may take longer and this cannot be aided by black coffee, vomiting, fresh air, exercise and cold showers – those are just some of the alcohol myths you should ignore.

If a person drinks heavily at night then the concentration of alcohol will be higher in thebloodstream throughout the following day.

Alcohol’s impact continues until the entire amount of consumed alcohol is eliminated from the body.

95% of the consumed alcohol is metabolised by liver through its oxidation into first acetaldehyde then acetic acid and lastly into carbon dioxide and water. The remaining portion is removed through its excretion into the breath, sweat, faeces, urine, saliva and breast milk.

In healthy people, the rate of alcohol elimination stays consistent and apparently, about 7ml to 12ml of alcohol is eliminated from their body in an hour with the average being 9.5ml/hr.

Factors that affect how we process alcohol

Our body’s ability to eliminate alcohol is influenced by several factors most of which are directly related to the water and fat content present in the person’s body. The factors include:

  • Weight
  • Fitness level
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Tolerance
  • Alcohol concentration
  • Food
  • Health

A lot of other factors influence how our body processes alcohol. Find out what factors affect our BAC.

Alcohol in moderation is reportedly beneficial for health, but can be a serious risk to health if taken excessively. Taken into consideration what we’ve learned about how alcohol enters our body, affects our organs, and then exits the body, it’s important to review our drinking habits and consider our health the next time we decide to enjoy some alcohol. Trust us – your body will thank you for it 🙂

Learn more about alcohol’s effects on the body: