Alcohol and Your Body

Understanding what alcohol does to your body and the risks associated with alcohol use can help you in many ways:

  • If you choose to drink, you can make safer decisions about drinking.

  • You can make a more informed decision about whether or not to drink.

  • You can recognize the warning signs of dangerous intoxication and call EMS for a friend.

  • You can reduce the risks associated with high risk alcohol use, including injury.

  • You can get help for yourself or for a friend.


What kind of substance is alcohol?

Alcohol is classified as a depressant because it slows down the central nervous system, causing a decrease in motor coordination, reaction time and intellectual performance. 

The main factors impacting intoxication level are a person’s weight, body composition and hormones, number of drinks, and the span of time the drinks are consumed in. 

How does alcohol move through the body?

Alcohol is metabolized mostly by the liver. In general, the liver can process one standard drink in one hour. If you consume more than this, the additional alcohol will accumulate in the blood and body tissues (like the brain) until it can be metabolized. This is why having a lot of shots or playing drinking games can result in high blood alcohol concentrations that last for several hours.


What is "one drink"?

People often underestimate how much they have had to drink because they aren’t using standard drink measurements. One drink is equal to one 12-oz beer, 1.5 ounces of liquor (whiskey, vodka, etc.), or a 5-oz glass of wine. 

Knowing your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC)

Different people will process alcohol at different rates. This means you could have the same number of drinks as a friend but feel greater effects from the alcohol than they do. Factors including body size, differing levels of enzymes responsible for metabolizing alcohol, hormones, percentage of body water relative to body fat, and prescription medicines can all affect alcohol tolerance.

This link can give you more specific BAC information based on your weight, what you've had to drink, and the time period over which you have had those drinks. 

The Time Factor

Hours since first drink

Subtract this from BAC













Effects of blood alcohol content on thinking, feeling and behavior

Now that you know how to calculate BAC, see how alcohol affects your body at different levels.

0.02 - 0.03 Legal definition of intoxication in R.I. for people under 21 years of age. Few obvious effects; slight intensification of mood.

0.05 - 0.06 Feeling of warmth, relaxation, mild sedation; exaggeration of emotion and behavior; slight decrease in reaction time and in fine-muscle coordination; impaired judgment about continued drinking.

0.07 - 0.09 More noticeable speech impairment and disturbance of balance; impaired motor coordination, hearing and vision; feeling of elation or depression; increased confidence; may not recognize impairment.

0.08 Legal definition of intoxication in R.I. for people 21 years and older.

0.11 - 0.12 Coordination and balance becoming difficult; distinct impairment of mental faculties and judgment.

0.14 - 0.15 Major impairment of mental and physical control; slurred speech, blurred vision and lack of motor skills; needs medical evaluation.

0.20 Loss of motor control; must have assistance standing or walking; mental confusion; needs medical assistance.

0.30 and higher Severe intoxication; potential loss of consciousness; needs hospitalization.

Does a person's sex play a role in alcohol's effect on the body?

A person's experience with alcohol's effects on the body is in part determined by their sex assigned at birth. According to research, a cisgender woman or person assigned female at birth will feel the effects of alcohol more than a cisgender man or person assigned male at birth, even if they are the same weight. There is also increasing evidence that people assigned female at birth are more susceptible to alcohol's damaging effects than are those assigned male.

Please note that if you are taking hormones as part of a gender affirming process, you may find that your experience with alcohol's effects on your body will change but there is not adequate research as yet to describe the full scope and variability of these effects.

Below are explanations of why our bodies process alcohol differently based on our sex assigned at birth:

Ability to dilute alcohol
Cisgender women and those assigned female at birth have less body water (52% v. 61%). A body with more water will automatically dilute the alcohol more, even if the two people weigh the same amount.

Ability to metabolize alcohol
Cisgender women and those assigned female at birth have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol, meaning they will break down alcohol more slowly.

Hormonal factors 
In people who menstruate, premenstrual hormonal changes cause intoxication to set in faster during the days right before a menstrual period. Birth control pills or other medication with estrogen will also slow down the rate at which alcohol is eliminated from the body.

Susceptibility to long-term alcohol-induced damage.
Studies have shown that cisgender women and those assigned female at birth who are heavy drinkers are at greater risk of liver disease, damage to the pancreas and high blood pressure. Research also tells us that proportionately more cisgender women or those assigned female at birth die from cirrhosis than do cisgender men or those assigned male.

What other factors affect your response to alcohol?

Having food in your stomach can have an influence on the absorption of alcohol. The food will slow the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine, where alcohol is very rapidly absorbed. Peak BAC could be as much as 3 times higher in someone with an empty stomach than in someone who has eaten a meal before drinking. Eating regular meals and having snacks while drinking will keep you from getting too drunk too quickly.

Asian descent
Some people of Asian descent have more difficulty metabolizing alcohol. They may experience facial flushing, nausea, headache, dizziness and rapid heartbeat. It appears that one of the liver enzymes that is needed to process alcohol is not active in these individuals. It is estimated that up to 50% of Asian people are susceptible to these reactions to alcohol.

Family History
Research studies have found that children of alcoholics are four times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems.  However, many people with a family history of alcoholism do not become alcoholics.  Additional factors that increase the risk of developing alcoholism include having an alcoholic parent who is depressed or has other psychological problems, or growing up in a family where both parents abuse alcohol or other drugs.

What is the difference between a blackout and passing out?

"Blackouts" (sometimes referred to as alcohol-related memory loss or "alcoholic amnesia") occur when people have no memory of what happened while intoxicated. During a blackout, someone may appear fine to others; however, the next day they cannot remember parts of the night and what they did. The cause of blackouts is not well understood but may involve the interference of short-term memory storage, deep seizures, or in some cases, psychological depression.

Blackouts shouldn't be confused with "passing out," which happens when people lose consciousness from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Losing consciousness means that the person has reached a very dangerous level of intoxication; they could aspirate on their vomit or slip into a coma. If someone has passed out, call EMS immediately (401.863-4111). 

What is a hangover and can I prevent it?

Hangovers are the body's reaction to poisoning and withdrawal from alcohol. Hangovers begin 8 to 12 hours after the last drink and symptoms include fatigue, depression, headache, thirst, nausea, and vomiting. The severity of symptoms varies according to the individual and the quantity of alcohol consumed.

People have tried many different things to relieve the effects of a hangover. The only way to prevent a hangover is to drink in moderation:

  • Eat a good dinner and continue to snack throughout the night.

  • Start out slowly to see how the alcohol is affecting you.

  • Avoid drinking games or shots. Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time is the most likely way to become dangerously intoxicated.

  • Drink water in between drinks to stay hydrated.

Here are some of the things that WON'T help a hangover:

  • Drinking a little more alcohol the next day. This simply puts more alcohol in your body and prolongs the effects of the alcohol intoxication.

  • It's best not to take a pain reliever before going to bed. Give your body a chance to process the alcohol before taking any medication.

Here are some things that MIGHT help a hangover:

  • When you wake up, it's important to eat a healthy meal. Processing alcohol causes a drop in blood sugar and can contribute to headaches.

  • Drink plenty of water to get rehydrated.

  • Take a pain reliever like Tylenol (acetaminophen) when you wake up. Do not take a pain reliever before going to bed because it will tax your liver. Let your body process the alcohol while you are sleeping. 

  • Avoid excessive caffeine as it may contribute to dehydration. However, if you drink coffee every morning, have your first cup not more than a couple of hours after your regular time. Don't force your body to go through caffeine withdrawal while you are recovering from a hangover.

Related Links

e-CHUG is a free, anonymous assessment tool that provides individualized feedback on the role alcohol is playing in your life. You can also see how your use compares with other college students. 

College Drinking: Changing the Culture
Click on the section for students to find out about myths and facts, take an interactive tour of the flow of alcohol through the body or learn about alcohol poisoning. You can use the Calorie Counter to learn about the number of calories in different drinks and you can send an eCard to someone who's drinking worries you.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
NIAAA publishes research on many aspects of alcohol, answers frequently asked questions and provides pamphlets and brochures. The research papers and reports can be downloaded.

National Institute of Drug Abuse
NIDA provides research reports, answers commonly-asked questions and gives related links.

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