What Happens to Your Body When You Drink Too Much Alcohol?
- Generally, women are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning, and feel the effects of alcohol faster than men of the same size. They’re also more predisposed to suffer from long-term alcohol-induced damage in the body
- Blood alcohol content (BAC), also called blood alcohol concentration, refers to the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream. It is expressed as the weight of ethanol measured in grams in 100 milliliters of blood or 210 liters of breath. BAC can be measured either through a breathalyzer test, a blood test or a urine test
- As a rule of thumb, darker liquors usually have higher alcohol content, whereas sweeter variants have less. Hence, darker and bitter beers have higher alcohol content. The same holds true for red wines compared to white wines and sweet wines, except for chardonnay. Meanwhile, all clear liquors have 40 percent alcohol content except for grain alcohol
- The 2015 to 2020 U.S. Standard Dietary Guidelines for Americans consider having no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men as moderate drinking
Some people believe that an occasional glass of red wine can benefit your health. Regardless of the merits of this view, too much red wine is unhealthy.
Alcohol can impair decision-making abilities and motor skills. It is frequently a factor in vehicular accidents, violent behaviors, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.1,2 Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to alcohol poisoning too, which negatively impacts your health and may even cost you your life if it’s not properly addressed.3
In the United States alone, there are approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost reported yearly from 2006 to 2010 due to alcohol poisoning, taking off an average of 30 years on the lives of those who died.4
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning impairs the body and eventually shuts down the areas of the brain that control basic life-support functions like breathing, heart rate and temperature control.5 You become more susceptible to alcohol poisoning when you:6
•Binge drink — Consuming four or more alcoholic beverages in a single occasion for women or more than five alcoholic drinks for men.
•Drink heavily — Consuming eight or more alcoholic beverages per week for women or more than 15 alcoholic beverages for men.
•Drink during pregnancy — No amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy due to risks of passing alcohol toxicity through the placenta to your unborn child, which can cause severe damages at any stage of pregnancy.
•Drink under the age of 21 — Underage drinkers are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning, as studies have shown that they typically consume about five drinks in a single occasion.
6 Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning comes with very serious health penalties, which is why it’s very important to be well-informed about the symptoms. Below are some of the most common signs of alcohol poisoning:7
•Loss of coordination
•Cold, clammy hands and bluish skin due to hypothermia
•Vomiting repeatedly and/or uncontrollably
•Irregular or slow breathing (less than eight breaths per minute or more than 10 seconds between breaths)
•Confusion, unconsciousness, stupor (conscious but unresponsive) and sometimes coma
If you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above, seek immediate medical attention.
Alcohol Poisoning Risk Factors
Generally, women are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning, and feel the effects of alcohol faster than men of the same size. They’re also more predisposed to suffer from long-term alcohol-induced damage in the body. This is due to several physiological reasons, such as:8
•Poor ability to dilute alcohol due to lower body water percentage. The average female only has 52 percent water in her body while the average male has 61 percent.
•Poor ability to metabolize alcohol because they have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme designed to break down alcohol in the body, than men.
•Premenstrual hormone changes tend to make women get intoxicated more rapidly during the days before their period. Birth control pills and other estrogen-containing medications, on the other hand, slow down the excretion of alcohol from the body.
This does not mean that men are completely safe from the dangers of alcohol poisoning. Below are a number of other factors that affect your body’s response to alcohol, regardless if you’re male or female:9
•Food — The peak blood alcohol concentration level can be three times higher in people who drink with an empty stomach than in those who had a decent meal before drinking. Food plays a significant role in alcohol absorption in the body because it dilutes the alcohol while slowing down the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine where alcohol is absorbed.
•Asian ethnicity — Approximately 50 percent of Asians have trouble metabolizing alcohol due to a missing liver enzyme needed to process the substance.
•Existing health conditions — People with diabetes should be wary of alcohol because it can cause a sudden surge or a dangerous drop in their blood sugar levels. Drinking alcohol may also prevent diabetes prescription drugs from working properly.
•Prescription drugs — Medications can potentially dull the effects of alcohol, which in turn causes you to drink more than what your body can truly handle.
How much water you drink, how often you drink alcohol, your age and your family history are potential risk factors as well.
Blood alcohol content (BAC), also called blood alcohol concentration, refers to the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream. It is expressed as the weight of ethanol measured in grams in every 100 milliliters of blood or 210 liters of breath. BAC can be measured through either a breathalyzer test, a blood test or a urine test.10
For example, a BAC of 0.10 means that 0.10 percent (one-tenth of one percent) of your blood, by volume, is alcohol. All states except for Utah have now set .08 percent BAC as the legal limit for Driving Under the Influence (DUI). For commercial drivers, a BAC of .04 percent can result in a DUI conviction nationwide. For those under age 21, there is a zero tolerance limit ― any amount of alcohol is grounds for a DUI arrest.11,12
To calculate your current blood alcohol content, there are free online sites and apps you can try like BloodAlcoholCalculator.org and iDrinkSmarter. BAC results may vary depending on several variables, which include your gender, personal alcohol tolerance, body weight and body fat percentage.13
As far as the 2015 to 2020 U.S. Standard Dietary Guidelines for Americans is concerned, moderate drinking is having no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.14 A standard drink contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol, which is usually found in:15
•12 ounces of beer (five percent alcohol)
•8 ounces of malt liquor (seven percent alcohol)
•5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol)
•1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor like gin, rum, vodka and whiskey (40 percent alcohol)
Various brands and types of alcoholic beverages come with different alcohol content levels. To get an idea of how much alcohol your favorite drink contains, check out the chart below:16
|TYPE OF DRINK||AVERAGE ALCOHOL PERCENTAGE BY VOLUME|
|Low-alcohol beer, lager and cider||2 percent|
|Regular beer, lager and cider||4 to 6 percent|
|Super-strength beer, lager and cider||9 percent|
|Wine and champagne||10 to 14 percent|
|Fortified wine (sherry and port)||17.5 to 20 percent|
|Spirits (gin, rum, vodka and whiskey)||38 to 40 percent|
|Shots (tequila and sambuca)||38 to 40 percent|
As a rule of thumb, darker liquors usually have higher alcohol content, whereas sweeter variants have less.17 Hence, darker and bitter beers have higher alcohol content. The same holds true for red wines compared to white wines and sweet wines, except for chardonnay. Meanwhile, all clear liquors have 40 percent alcohol content except for grain alcohol.18
If left untreated, a person suffering from alcohol poisoning can:19
•Choke on their own vomit
•Be severely dehydrated, which can cause seizures, permanent brain damage and even death
•Have slow and irregular breathing, which can eventually stop
•Have irregular heartbeats, which can eventually stop
•Develop hypoglycemia (extremely low blood sugar), which can lead to seizures
Because a woman’s body has less tolerance for alcohol compared to men, it’s more susceptible to the damaging effects of alcohol poisoning. Numerous studies have linked these health consequences to excessive drinking in women, which include:
•Disrupted menstrual cycle20
•Increased risk of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and premature delivery21
•Higher risk of liver cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases compared to men22
•Memory loss and brain shrinkage23
•Increased risk of mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon and breast cancer24
Alcohol is also a common risk factor in many cases of sexual assault, particularly among young women. About 1 in 20 college women are sexually assaulted each year, and research suggests that there is a higher likelihood of rape or sexual assault when both the victim and the attacker are under the influence of alcohol before the incident.25,26
Alcohol poisoning is not something that will pass and go away the following day. If you believe that someone you know could be suffering from alcohol poisoning, here are some things you should and shouldn’t do to keep them safe while waiting for help:27
|Make sure they remain conscious.||Tell them to sleep it off — The blood alcohol content can continue to rise even when they’re not drinking.|
|Keep them warm.||Give them coffee — This will further dehydrate the person.|
|Monitor their symptoms.||Instruct them to walk around — This may only cause falls and bumps, which may result in serious injuries, given the brain’s unfit condition.|
|Give them water to help keep them hydrated.||Ask them to take a cold shower — Since alcohol already lowers the body temperature, taking a cold shower could make the person feel colder than they already feel, potentially causing hypothermia.|
|Stay with them and never leave them alone.|
|Ensure they lie on their side so they won’t choke on their own vomit.|
Lastly, don’t wait for all the symptoms of alcohol poisoning to manifest, and don’t hesitate to call for emergency medical help immediately. Remember: BAC levels can rise rapidly, and time is of the essence in this situation. Being a minute too late could mean irreversible damage or even death.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know how you can keep yourself or your friends from suffering from alcohol poisoning. The first and probably the most important step that you can take is to practice self-control. Avoid and discourage your friends from participating in any alcohol drinking challenge, which is a surefire way to get alcohol poisoning.
However, if you really must have a few drinks, I personally recommend taking any of these natural protocols beforehand to pretox your body:
•N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) — Taking NAC before you drink alcohol may help lessen alcohol’s toxic effects. NAC helps increase glutathione levels and reduce acetaldehyde toxicity, which causes many hangover symptoms.28
•Thiamine — Alcohol depletes essential B vitamins, which may help eliminate alcohol from the body. NAC is thought to work even better when combined with thiamine, also known as vitamin B1.29
•Milk thistle — Milk thistle contains silymarin and silybin, antioxidants that are known to help protect the liver from toxins, including the effects of alcohol. Not only has silymarin been found to help increase glutathione, but it may also help regenerate liver cells.30
•Vitamin C — Alcohol may deplete your body of vitamin C, which is important for reducing alcohol-induced oxidative stress in your liver. Make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of vitamin C, either through supplements or through organic fruits and vegetables, before taking any alcoholic beverage.31
•Magnesium — This is another nutrient depleted by alcohol, and it’s one that many people are already deficient in. Magnesium has anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce hangover symptoms. If you don’t eat a lot of magnesium-rich foods, taking a magnesium supplement before an evening involving drinking may be helpful.32
These pretox measures are imperative for supplying your body with the vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients to help protect your liver and assist in the breakdown and removal of alcohol from your system. Other practical measures that may help include:33,34
•Staying hydrated — Drink a glass of water along with each alcoholic beverage to help prevent dehydration. At bedtime, drink another large glass of water or two to help stave off hangover symptoms in the morning.
•Eating before and during drinking — If your stomach is empty, it will speed up the alcohol’s rate of absorption into your body. It may also cause severe stomach irritation. Make it a point to eat a meal before you drink alcohol and nibble on filling snacks like organic cheese while you drink. At the very least, try this old piece of wisdom from the Mediterranean region: Take a spoonful of olive oil before drinking alcohol to help prevent a hangover.
•Replenishing electrolytes — Try drinking coconut water before you go to bed to help reduce hangover symptoms in the morning.
•Sticking with clear alcohol — Generally, clear liquors like vodka, gin or white wine contain fewer congeners than darker varieties like brandy or whiskey.
•Stopping once you feel buzzed — When you feel buzzed, it’s a sign that your body’s detoxification pathways are becoming overwhelmed. Take a break from drinking or quit for the day to allow your body to metabolize the alcohol effectively.
In addition, I also advise against drinking when you’re feeling down, or worse, depressed, as this can only lead to unconsciousness and uncontrolled alcohol consumption. Note that alcohol can actually alter your brain chemistry and lower the levels of serotonin, a mood-regulating chemical in your brain, increasing your anxiety and stress instead of reducing it.35
Rather than falling into the vicious cycle of alcohol abuse, I recommend addressing your emotional health as soon as possible. Try the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), which is one of the most effective energy psychology tools for me.
- 1 Rev Lat Am Enfermagem. 2014 Sep-Oct; 22(5): 739–746.
- 2 J Stud Alcohol. 2006 Jan; 67(1): 113–121.
- 3, 27 Mayo Clinic, Alcohol Poisoning
- 4, 6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Alcohol Use and Your Health
- 5 National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Overview of Alcohol Consumption
- 7 Drink Aware, Alcohol Poisoning – Symptoms, Causes and Effects
- 8, 9 Brown University Health Promotion, Alcohol and Your Body
- 10 Ramapo College of New Jersey, Blood Alcohol Concentration
- 11 Governors Highway Safety Association, Alcohol Impaired Driving
- 12 DMV.org, DUI & DWI
- 13 School Drug Education and Road Aware (SDERA), Factors Affecting BAC
- 14 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020
- 15 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alcohol and Public Health
- 16 NHS Department of Health, “Alcohol Units: A Brief Guide”
- 17 “Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs” April 4, 2016
- 18 “The Herbalist’s Way: The Art and Practice of Healing with Plant Medicines” August 19, 2005
- 19 University of Texas, Alcohol Overdose
- 20 Journal of Pharmacology, 1988 May;245(2):pp. 407-12
- 21 Alcoholism Clinical and Experimental Research, 1984 September-October;8(5):pp.451-8
- 22 Scand J Gastroenterol. 1987 Dec;22(10):1251-6.
- 23 American Journal of Psychiatry, 2001 February;158(2):pp.198-204
- 24 The Lancet Oncology, 2007 April;8(4):pp.292-3
- 25 Journal of Studies on Alcohol Supplement, 2002 March;(14):pp.118-28
- 26 Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 2004 Jan;65(1):pp. 37-45
- 28 Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry December 1994, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 64–71
- 29 Agents and Actions April 1974, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 125–130
- 30 Indian J Biochem Biophys. 2006 Oct;43(5):306-11.
- 31 Physiol Res. 1998;47(2):137-41.
- 32 Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy. 2008; 3: 1.
- 33 Mayo Clinic, Hangovers
- 34 The Doctors Book of Home Remedies March 2, 2010
- 35 Psychopathology. 1989;22 Suppl 1:37-48.