Alcohol and Nutrition

  • Author:
    Betty Kovacs, MS, RD

    Betty is a Registered Dietitian who earned her B.S. degree in Food and Nutrition from Marymount College of Fordham University and her M.S. degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. She is the Co-Director and Director of nutrition for the New York Obesity Research Center Weight Loss Program.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Quick GuideAlcohol Abuse: 12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking

Alcohol Abuse: 12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking

How is alcohol metabolized?

Have you ever wondered why you feel the way that you do after drinking alcohol? The effects that alcohol has on your health start with how it's metabolized. Once alcohol is in your system, your body makes metabolizing it a priority. That means that it will stop metabolizing anything else in order to take care of the alcohol. This happens because unlike protein, carbohydrates, and fat, there is nowhere for alcohol to be stored in our body.

Once alcohol enters your stomach, up to 20% of it can be absorbed there and go directly into your bloodstream. Within minutes, alcohol will reach your brain and give the feeling of being a stimulant. No other food or beverage in your diet is able to do this. The remaining alcohol goes to your intestines and is absorbed there with the rest of the nutrients. A small amount of alcohol is excreted through sweat, saliva, urine, and your breath, which is how it is detected by a Breathalyzer.

Your liver is the primary site for alcohol metabolism; this is why you can have liver problems from consuming too much alcohol. Alcohol is detoxified and removed from the blood through a process called oxidation. Oxidation prevents the alcohol from accumulating and destroying cells and organs. A healthy liver oxidizes pure ethanol at the rate of about ¼ to ⅓ of an ounce per hour, which is less than 1 ounce of hard liquor.

When you drink alcohol, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will rise rapidly. Within about 10 minutes of having a drink, there's enough alcohol in your blood to measure. The BAC is determined by how quickly alcohol is absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and excreted. The following factors can influence the BAC:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Food consumed with the alcohol
  • Chronic alcohol consumption
  • Drinking pattern
  • Medications

Having one standard drink will result in a peak in BAC within 35 to 45 minutes. A 150-pound person with normal liver function metabolizes about 7 to 14 grams of alcohol per hour, which is approximately 100 to 200 mg/kg of body weight per hour. This is comparable to 8 to 12 ounces of beer or half of an alcoholic drink. Controlling the rate of consumption will give your liver time to metabolize the alcohol and limit your BAC. Once you stop drinking, your blood alcohol level decreases by about 0.01% per hour. You are legally intoxicated with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.8. Time is the only way to eliminate alcohol from your system, so cold showers and coffee will not sober you up. Trying to get someone who is drunk to feel and appear more alert can cause a false sense of sobriety to the person drinking and everyone around them. Continue Reading

Reviewed on 2/17/2016
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