Table of Contents
What Defines a Drink?
A standard drink in the United States is defined as any drink containing roughly 14 grams or 0.6 fl oz of pure alcohol (ethanol). The amount of alcohol differs between hard liquor, wine, beer, and mixed drinks.
When it comes to different types of alcohol, one standard drink is considered to be one 12 oz beer, which contains 5% alcohol. Wine contains 12% alcohol and a standard drink is 5 oz. With distilled spirits that contain 40% alcohol – such as gin, tequila, vodka, whiskey, or rum – a standard drink is a 1.5 oz shot. Malt liquor contains 7% alcohol, and a standard drink is 8-9 oz.1
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one standard drink impacts people equally.
Factors that Affect Drinking
Alcohol’s effects on us depend on several factors including:
- Body Fat
- Food intake before alcohol consumption
- Medications and other substances
- Liver disease
- Consuming large amounts of alcohol in a small time frame (binge drinking)
There are gender differences when it comes to alcohol consumption and blood alcohol content (BAC) levels. BAC levels reflect the amount of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream.
Women typically have lower drinking thresholds due to lower production of the enzyme (alcohol dehydrogenase) that helps break down alcohol once it reaches their liver. Additionally, because women tend to have higher body fat percentages, alcohol often remains in their systems longer than in men’s systems.
For women, the recommended drinking limit is 1 drink per day. For men, the recommended drinking limit is 2 drinks per day.
Is Alcohol Addictive?
The short answer is that yes, alcohol is an addictive substance. Alcohol is addictive for a variety of reasons. Socially, alcohol often makes us feel more relaxed and confident. Alcohol can make it feel easier to create new friendships, have fun, get outside of our heads, or numb feelings of pain or stress.
At a certain point, emotional dependence grows into a psychological and physical dependence, where the individual does not feel like themself without the presence of alcohol in their system. Because they do not feel like themselves, individuals may become more dependent on alcohol to feel good, ultimately leading to alcohol addiction.
A study conducted by UCSF in 2012 found that consuming alcohol triggered the release of endorphins in two areas of the brain related to reward processing. Researchers found an even greater release of these “feel good” inducing chemicals in heavy drinkers. As individuals become heavy drinkers, their brains become dependent on alcohol to produce these “feel good” endorphins.2
Statistics on Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Addiction
The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported the number of people in the United States currently struggling with alcohol addiction at about 14.5 million people over the age of 12.3
Alcohol abuse does not just mean alcohol addiction – it also reflects high-risk drinking habits like binging. Additionally, 4.2 million people between the ages of 12-20 reported engaging in binge drinking in the past month.
The Dangers of Alcohol Abuse
For those who are not chronic drinkers, the main side effects of drinking usually run their course in a few hours. However, when it comes to alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction, the risks with alcohol consumption are much higher.
Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms
Alcohol poisoning can occur when an individual drinks a large amount of alcohol in a short timeframe. When we introduce too much alcohol at a faster rate than our systems can eliminate the substance, it can lead to alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol poisoning is incredibly dangerous. According to the CDC, alcohol poisoning contributes to 95,000 deaths per year in the United States. That breaks down to 261 deaths per day.4
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:5
- Slow Breathing (less than eight breaths per minute)
- Irregular Breathing (over 10 seconds between breaths)
- Low Body Temperature (hypothermia)
- Blue-tinged or Pale Skin
- Passing Out and Can’t Be Awakened
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:6
- Mood Swings
- Trouble Concentrating/Mental Fog
- Difficulty Sleeping
- Appetite Loss
- Dilated Pupils
- Fast Heart Rate
- Pale Skin
Withdrawal from severe drinking or alcohol abuse heightens the possibility of delirium tremens (DTS.) Affecting 3-5% of those suffering from alcohol addiction who attempt to get sober, DTS is extremely dangerous and may require hospitalization.
Symptoms of DTS include:
- Extreme Agitation and Confusion
- High Blood Pressure
How is Alcohol Metabolized?
While it might start on a similar journey, alcohol is metabolized differently than food. After taking that first sip of alcohol, a small amount is instantly absorbed by the “tongue and mucosal lining of the mouth.”7
As the alcohol travels to the stomach, 20% is rapidly absorbed by the tissues lining the upper gastrointestinal tract (stomach) and sent directly into the bloodstream. The other 80% takes a bit longer, traveling through the small intestines where it is similarly absorbed through tissue linings into the bloodstream.
Our blood circulates throughout our entire body in about 90 seconds. Because alcohol is water-soluble, our bodies easily transport alcohol to every organ very quickly. Once alcohol enters the bloodstream, it only takes about 5 minutes to reach your brain.
The final stage of alcohol consumption features the removal of alcohol from the bloodstream. 10% is excreted through sweat, urine, or breathing. The liver removes the remaining 90% of the alcohol from our bloodstreams. As our liver processes the alcohol, enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenase break down the ethanol into ketones at a pace of 0.015 g/100mL/hour. To summarize, your liver reduces your BAC levels by roughly 0.015 per hour.
How Long Does It Take for Alcohol to Kick In?
The amount of time it takes for alcohol to kick in varies, but the first signs of intoxication generally hit within the first 5-10 minutes. Intoxication effects typically peak between 30-90 minutes.
Mild Intoxication symptoms include:
- Slurred Speech
- Loss of coordination
- Difficulty focusing
- Difficulty breathing
- Lowered inhibitions
- Memory fog
It might take more alcohol for those with alcohol addiction to see these same effects that typically are associated with standard drinking limits.
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
While the effects of alcohol may disappear after a few hours, the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream dissipates at a constant rate of 0.015 grams per deciliter per hour. This factor means that if someone with a BAC of 0.20 wanted to sober up, it would take them about 14 hours for all alcohol to leave their system.
It might take longer for someone with alcohol addiction to clear all traces of alcohol from their system as their liver is working overtime with decreased efficiency. There are several alcohol tests on the market that measure BAC levels. These alcohol tests can determine your BAC levels up to 90 days after drinking.
- Blood: Although used more rarely, this alcohol test captures BAC levels up to 6 hours after drinking.
- Breath: The breathalyzer is perhaps the most well-known tool for measuring BAC levels, likely because of its ease and accuracy. Breathalyzers can detect BAC levels anywhere from 12-24 hours after drinking. Because it is so portable and accurate, the breathalyzer is popular across many industries as the standard alcohol test.8
- Saliva: BAC levels can be measured in saliva from 12-24 hours after drinking.
- Urine: Traditional alcohol urine tests can detect alcohol up to 12-24 hours after drinking. However, newer alcohol urine tests that check for ethanol metabolites can detect alcohol up to 72 hours later.8
- Hair: Hair tests can detect alcohol up to 90 days after consumption.
Myths About How to Get Alcohol Out of Your System
Many people wonder how to get alcohol out of your system faster. The truth of the matter is, while there are steps you can take to feel less intoxicated, there is nothing you can do to increase the rate at which your liver metabolizes alcohol.
Cold showers, eating more food beforehand, hydrating – all are good ways to recover. While these tips might make you feel less drunk, though, they ultimately do not reduce BAC levels any faster.
If you’re struggling to find your way back to yourself, know you’re not alone.
We at Brooks Healing Center are here for you and want to help you fall in love with everything life has to offer you. If you’re looking for some support on your road to recovery, reach out. We’re happy to discuss the pathway to recovery that works best for your lifestyle and goals.