Alcohol Awareness
How it Affects You: Your Body
The Alcohol Pathway
Alcohol is a mood altering depressant drug that can reach every cell in your body. When alcohol is swallowed it is not digested like food; instead, a small amount is immediately absorbed directly into your blood stream by the lining of your mouth and stomach. The rest is rapidly absorbed in the small intestine. Within 90 seconds (a healthy circulation rate) it will affect all the organs and systems in your body, crossing even the blood-brain barrier, which normally keeps harmful substances away from the brain.

Your body tries immediately to metabolize (break down) the alcohol into non-harmful substances (water, carbon dioxide and energy). Ten percent of the alcohol is eliminated through sweat, breath and urine. Enzymes in your stomach and liver must detoxify the rest. This happens at a constant rate of one-half ounce per hour (about half a standard drink). Nothing will increase this rate and not all people can detoxify that much alcohol in an hour.When the rate of alcohol consumption exceeds the rate of detoxification, the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream continues to build, with increasingly detrimental effects. Vomiting and loss of consciousness, the body's last defenses against an alcohol overdose, may occur prior to severe impairment of the brain. However, if alcohol is consumed in large quantities and quickly (drinking games and multiple shots) these life saving mechanisms cannot stop the blood alcohol levels from climbing and death can occur from acute alcohol poisoning.

Affecting Factors
How alcohol affects you depends on how much is in your bloodstream - your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). The BAC determines how much intoxication (depression of your nervous system) will occur. Many factors affect your rate of intoxication, including:

• The amount and speed of consumption - if alcohol is consumed slowly, it allows the body to metabolize it and limit accumulation in the bloodstream.

• A full or empty stomach - Food, water, and fruit juice dilute the alcohol and help to slow its absorption into the bloodstream (by up to 50%). Carbonation works to speed absorption.

• Body weight and composition - The body is 60% water and as fat holds less water than muscle, those who are leaner and heavier have a higher water content to dilute the alcohol, so the effects of alcohol are less pronounced than in a lighter person who drinks the same amount or those with a greater percentage of body fat.

• Gender - Women absorb about a third more alcohol into their blood stream than men as they have less of the metabolizing enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase. Women are much more vulnerable to the affects of alcohol for many reasons, see Just for Women to find out why.

• Setting, mood or atmosphere - What you expect, the setting or location, your mental state, and other drugs being used, can also alter alcohol's effects. If you are tired, upset, depressed, excited or inexperienced you are more susceptible. Many people become intoxicated on less alcohol merely because they have that expectation before they begin drinking.

• Age - As people get older they are affected more by alcohol

• Tolerance - The bodies of experienced drinkers have adapted to alcohol being present in their systems, so it may take longer and more alcohol to feel impaired. In severe cases of repeated alcohol consumption, where brain or liver damage have occurred, the person may become very sensitive to alcohol.


Last Updated: January 11,2005

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