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There are many students who don’t drink alcohol, and the majority of those who do make choices that keep their health and overall well-being in mind. When you’re making decisions about drinking, there are many factors to consider, and getting to know your individual body chemistry is something useful to do.

The Basics

Alcohol is easily soluble in water, which means it enters the bloodstream and crosses the blood-brain barrier quickly. As you sip, the alcohol moves down your esophagus and into your stomach, where approximately 20 percent of it is absorbed. The rest is absorbed in the small intestine.

People drink for various reasons, but most say they like that alcohol makes them feel relaxed. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means it slows down your brain, leading to reduced tension and inhibitions, and affecting your motor skills, coordination, and mood. In large quantities, it slows your breathing and lowers your blood pressure, leading to serious, even life-threatening, consequences.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)

BAC (or BAL—blood alcohol level) is a buzzword when it comes to understanding how alcohol affects your body. BAC indicates:

  • How much, and how quickly, alcohol has been absorbed into your bloodstream
  • How it is distributed throughout your body
  • How quickly it is processed and eliminated

Why Does BAC Matter?
Your thoughts, feelings, and behavior vary based on your BAC, as does the functioning of your body, so understanding it can be useful when making decisions about drinking.

BAC measures how much alcohol has reached your organs—which can be determined through a breath, urine, or blood test.

Most people don’t walk around with a calculator to measure their BAC. So, a general rule is: A 150-pound person who drinks one standard drink over the course of one hour will have a BAC of approximately .04. This is the “magic zone.” You’re likely to feel the desirable, relaxed feelings you seek from alcohol, and your risk of negative consequences is low.

David J. Hanson, professor emeritus at State University of New York at Potsdam, explains that the liver can metabolize one standard drink per hour. That’s equal to:

  • A 12-oz. beer
  • A 5-oz. glass of wine
  • A 1.5-oz. shot of liquor, regardless of proof
  • A mixed drink with 1.5 oz. of liquor in it

Drinking one standard drink per hour is a good way to stay within the “magic zone.”

Time on Your Side
The faster you drink, the higher your BAC. It takes 30–90 minutes for your BAC to reach its peak, so drinking slowly allows time to assess how you feel and decide whether consuming more alcohol is a sensible choice.

Your body breaks down alcohol much more slowly than it absorbs it, through a process called oxidation which occurs in the liver. This process cannot be made to go faster, and as noted by Washington State University’s Alcohol & Drug Counseling, Assessment, & Prevention Services Web site, “There are no significant differences in the rate of alcohol [breakdown] among individuals.”

This is very important to understand: No matter who you are, alcohol is being broken down at the same rate in everyone. How quickly a person absorbs alcohol, and therefore feels, can differ dramatically from person to person, though, and is based on a variety of factors.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) and Behavior

California State University Bakersfield provides the following information about BAC and its impact on your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Keep in mind that these are general guidelines.
BAC %Feeling/Behavior
.02Lightheaded, lowered inhibitions, intensified mood
.05Warm and relaxed; mild sense of euphoria; exaggerated behavior (e.g., loud talking)
.08Lack of coordination & balance; Motor skills impaired; Slurred speech; Impaired judgment; Misperception of functioning: believe more in control than reality
.10Significant motor impairment; Loss of memory possible; Belligerent
.15Difficulty talking, walking, and standing; Judgment and perception severely impaired; Increased risk of accidental injury to self or others; Possible blackout (complete memory loss)
.20Confused and disoriented; Desensitized to pain; Gag reflex impaired: can choke on own vomit
.25All mental, physical, and sensory functions severely impaired; Increased risk of asphyxiation from choking on vomit and/or serious injury
.30Drunken stupor; Unconscious; Breathing may stop; .35% = level of surgical anesthesia
.40Coma; Possible death

Stanford University researchers explain that the more complex the cognitive or motor task, the more sensitive it is to alcohol’s effects. In addition, they clarify, “Alcohol-induced impairment can occur at levels well below .05 percent [BAC].”

In fact, the skills necessary for driving can be impaired at a BAC as low as .015 percent, before you even begin to feel mildly relaxed. Legal intoxication levels vary from state to state, but are generally between a BAC of .05 and .08.

For a Blood Alcohol Concentration calculator, CLICK HERE.

Body Composition

Some people think that those who are bigger, or weigh more, can drink more than their smaller peers. In truth, it’s not about size; it’s about the ratio of fat to muscle.

Alcohol isn’t fat-soluble, so it moves more quickly into the bloodstream through fat cells. This leads to more rapid intoxication. Muscular people tend to have more body fluid, too, which dilutes alcohol and distributes it throughout the body, lowering BAC.

Muscular people may think they have higher tolerances to alcohol, but their livers are breaking it down at the same rate as everyone else, so essential bodily functions—motor skills, breathing, heart rate, etc.—are becoming just as impaired.

Enjoy (Your Enzymes) Responsibly

Alcohol dehydrogenase is a group of liver enzymes that converts alcohol into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which is toxic, and then further breaks it down into less toxic acetate.

Why is this important? If you don’t have sufficient liver enzymes, your body can’t break alcohol down as rapidly, and this means you’ll have more toxic acetaldehyde in your body and a higher BAC. This causes:

  • Facial redness
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heartbeat

Women, and many people of East Asian descent, have less alcohol dehydrogenase than others, or they may be missing it entirely. New research about other ethnic groups may uncover that other physiological and genetic factors influence the processing of alcohol as well.

If you realize you or a friend are exhibiting symptoms of this deficiency, slow down your drinking or consider abstaining completely.

More about alcohol dehydrogenase deficiency

Missing Enzymes

According to 2009 research published in PLOS Medicine, approximately 36 percent of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people have a deficiency of one of the liver enzymes necessary for breaking down alcohol. According to Brown University’s health education program, this may affect up to 50 percent of people of Asian descent.

Women also usually have less of these enzymes than men, leading to higher BAC and earlier alcohol impairment.

Those with this deficiency also appear to be at a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer.

Are Men and Women Different?

According to research done at Stanford University, “Women become more impaired than men after drinking similar quantities of alcohol.” Women appear to have more rapid loss of short- and long-term memory and decision-making ability, and reach that “magic zone” BAC approximately one hour before men when all other factors are controlled.

This means that a woman’s BAC will continue to rise more quickly than her male peers’, and women appear to be more susceptible than men to alcohol’s long-term health effects, too.

If you drink, learn how your body reacts to alcohol and how you feel when drinking. This can help you make the choices that are healthiest for you.

Women and Alcohol: Different Than Men

Women break down alcohol more slowly, and feel its effects more quickly, than men. The bottom line? The same drink will affect a woman more than a man, no matter her size or level of drinking experience. Here’s why:
  • Women break alcohol down more slowly, due to lower amounts of the liver enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase.
  • Women typically have more body fat (in comparison to lean mass) than their male counterparts. Alcohol is not fat-soluble, so the alcohol enters the bloodstream more quickly.
  • In general, women’s bodies have less water than men’s. According to Brown University’s health education program, women have 52 percent compared to 61 percent in men.
  • With lower amounts of body water, alcohol is distributed less widely, raising BAC.
  • Research seems to indicate that hormonal factors, especially those related to the menstrual cycle, do not have an effect on how women metabolize alcohol. Studies have found, however, that menstruating may affect a woman’s ability to gauge her level of intoxication accurately, making it even more important to set limits before drinking, and stick with them.

Other factors that influence alcohol metabolism, BAC, & intoxication

What’s in Your Stomach?
Since a large portion of the alcohol you drink gets absorbed into the bloodstream in the stomach and small intestine, how much and what kind of food is in your system can impact the speed with which you feel its effects.

There is a common misperception that food acts like a sponge, literally absorbing the alcohol and dissipating its effects. What’s actually happening is that food slows the movement of alcohol into the small intestine, where it will quickly be absorbed into the bloodstream. It can be helpful to think of food as a line of soldiers, protecting your gastrointestinal tract.

Researchers at Stanford University in California explain that if alcohol moves quickly through your stomach and intestines, “The quantity of alcohol reaching the liver can exceed [its] metabolic capacity.” That means that more alcohol will enter the bloodstream before being broken down, raising your BAC.

If you decide to drink alcohol, make sure to have a meal beforehand, and eat carbohydrate- and protein-rich foods as snacks. (Think of popular party foods: cheese and crackers or chips and guacamole.) If you haven’t eaten in the past few hours, remember that alcohol will affect you differently than your friends.

Have You Been Drinking… Water?
It’s essential to sip water whenever you’re drinking alcohol. This is for two main reasons:
  1. Alcohol is a diuretic. That means it causes your body to let go of fluids; you’ll pee out more liquid than you take in. This can cause dehydration.
  2. Alcohol is distributed in the body in water. The less water in your system, the more concentrated the alcohol will be, increasing BAC and intoxication.
An easy strategy to make sure you’re staying hydrated is to alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Focus on water, seltzer, and other non-caffeinated options. Caffeine is a diuretic, so it’ll cause you to lose even more water.

Plus, the combination of caffeine (a stimulant) and alcohol (a depressant) can be dangerous for your heart, and caffeine’s effects may make you think you’re less intoxicated than you are, increasing the risk of dangerous consequences.

Speaking of Other Drugs…
Mixing alcohol with other drugs (including caffeine) can be dangerous. If someone you know has been drinking and is behaving strangely, experiencing unusual physical symptoms, or seems more intoxicated than expected given how much alcohol he or she has consumed, get medical help right away.

If you take prescription or over-the-counter medications, speak with your health care provider about potential interactions with alcohol. For example:
  • Allergy medicines are often depressants, so will intensify alcohol’s effects.
  • Aspirin and alcohol are both stomach irritants.
  • Acetaminophen taxes your liver in much the way alcohol does.
How Are You Feeling…Emotionally?
If you’re tired or sick, your liver isn’t working as efficiently. You may also be dehydrated. Both of these will cause you to become more intoxicated, more quickly.

If you’re feeling blue or stressed, your nervous system is already in a depressed state. Add alcohol and your mood will be intensified, and you’ll become intoxicated more quickly.

For more about factors affecting intoxication, CLICK HERE.

Take Action!

  • Not everyone drinks. Focus on making decisions that are right for your health and well-being.
  • If you do drink, get to know your body’s reactions and set your own limits.
  • Consider your body composition, sex, and ethnic background when making drinking  decisions.
  • If you drink alcohol, slow its absorption by eating a meal first, drinking at a slow pace, snacking, and drinking plenty of water.

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Samantha Yeh is a recent graduate of the State University of New York at Oswego. She is a social media strategist and writes for In Focus, a news blog.