Skip to content

How Does The Body Metabolize Alcohol?

As soon as someone takes their first drink of alcohol, it enters the bloodstream and can begin showing effects within 10 minutes. The effects that it has on someone depends on many factors, including how much alcohol they consumed, the pace at which they drank, their sex, their weight, and whether or not they have eaten. How long alcohol stays in your system depends mostly on the amount of alcohol drank in a certain amount of time.

As alcohol enters the stomach and small intestine, small blood vessels carry it to the bloodstream. According to the University of California Santa Cruz, 80% of alcohol consumed is absorbed through the small intestine, and 20% is absorbed through the stomach. Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, where alcohol is broken down and eliminated by the body. Two enzymes that help break apart the alcohol molecule are alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Researchers have found that individuals carry different variations of the ADH and ALDH enzymes, meaning that some people can break down alcohol more quickly than others. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that, “A fast ADH enzyme or a slow ALDH enzyme can cause toxic acetaldehyde to build up in the body, creating dangerous and unpleasant effects that also may affect an individual’s risk for various alcohol-related problems—such as developing alcoholism.”

The liver can process one standard drink in one hour, which means if someone has more than one drink in the same time frame, the extra alcohol will accumulate in the blood and body tissues until it can be metabolized, resulting in increased intoxication and a high blood alcohol concentration (BAC). As a general rule, one alcoholic drink will stay in your system for one hour, so if someone consumes multiple drinks rapidly, it can take many hours for the alcohol to leave their system. There has been some suggestion that doing things like drinking caffeine or taking a cold shower will sober someone up, however there is no way to increase the rate that their body breaks down alcohol and bring down the BAC level in the body.

How Long Can Alcohol Be Detected?

The physical signs of intoxication are usually fairly obvious, such as bloodshot eyes, a dazed look, slurred or irregular speech, improper balance like swaying and staggering, or the smell of alcohol on someone’s breath. Depending on the method of testing, alcohol can be detected for hours or months. A common detection method often seen in situations like traffic stops is a breathalyzer. When someone blows into one of these devices, the ethanol in their breath is detected and offers a BAC that shows their level of intoxication. Alcohol can be detected on the breath for up to 24 hours.

Urine tests can detect alcohol on average between 12 and 48 hours, with some advanced tests being able to detect alcohol for up to 80 hours. Urine tests are used for a variety of reasons to determine alcohol abstinence. Some of these reasons include participating in an alcohol treatment program, court cases, probation, and a DUI or DWI program. Urine tests are a version of an ethyl glucuronide (EtG) test and are the most popular method compared to others such as a blood, hair, or nail test. Results from an EtG test range from high positive, low positive, and very low positive. A high positive result means the person being tested was drinking heavily the day before the test or drank the day of the test. A low positive means that they possibly drank heavily within 3 days of the test or drank in the past 24 hours. A very low positive means that the person being tested could have drank heavily within 3 days of the test, drank lightly within 12 to 36 hours of the test, or was exposed to environmental products containing alcohol.

The Effects Of Alcohol In Your System

People drink alcohol for the euphoric effects it produces, as well as for its ability to reduce inhibitions and offer sedative effects. There is also a slew of negative and sometimes dangerous effects, such as diminished judgment and reasoning, impacted memory, and less self-control. The effects of alcohol in your system are not just while you’re drinking or even a few hours afterwards. Oftentimes, effects go into the next day in the form of a hangover. Dehydration from alcohol can cause headaches and dizziness, and alcohol’s disruption of sleep can cause someone to feel very drowsy the next day. A culprit of hangovers are congeners found in alcohol; a chemical constituent that is produced during the fermentation of alcohol.

Some research has found that congeners are associated with more severe hangovers. Congeners are found in higher concentration in darker alcoholic drinks, compared to clear or light-colored drinks. The drink with the highest congener concentration is bourbon, but it is also found in other dark drinks like red wine, dark beer, and brandy. Drinks with a lower concentration of congeners are light beers, vodka, and gin. Although there is no way to totally prevent a hangover when drinking alcohol, it may make a slight difference for some to drink clear drinks over darker ones. However, the only way to truly a prevent a hangover and the other negative effects of alcohol in your system is abstinence.

Is Alcohol Negatively Impacting Your Life?

If you have found alcohol being a factor in legal, professional, or personal problems in your life, then you may have an AUD. The inability to cut back on drinking, continuing to drink despite negative consequences, and experiencing withdrawal effects are just a few of the signs of an alcohol use disorder. About 15 million Americans have an AUD, but there are treatment options available. Withdrawing from alcohol alone can be dangerous and sometimes fatal, so it is important to conduct a professionally supervised detox to get the alcohol out of your system before beginning treatment.

Contact a treatment provider today to discuss treatment options.

  • Author: Hayley Hudson | Last Updated: October 4, 2021

    Photo of Hayley Hudson

    Hayley Hudson

    Director of Content

    Hayley Hudson is the Director of Content at Alcohol Help. She earned a B.A. in Communications from the University of Central Florida. A passion for writing led her to a career in journalism, and she worked as a news reporter for focusing on stories in the healthcare and wellness industry. Knowledge in healthcare led to an interest in drug and alcohol abuse, and she realized how many people are touched by addiction.

  • Medical Reviewer: Theresa Parisi

  • Sources