Know… how alcohol works

Alcohol is produced when the sugars from fruits or cereals are fermented by yeasts.

The alcohol you drink travels to your stomach. Unlike food, alcohol doesn't need to be digested and can pass quickly and easily into the bloodstream (about 20% of the alcohol that enters the stomach is absorbed immediately).

After entering the bloodstream, alcohol travels very quickly to every part of the body. Your brain will be the first part of your body to be affected – the alcohol will dull the parts of your brain that control how your body works, affecting your actions and your ability to make decisions and stay in control. At first, you may feel happy and less inhibited, but after a few more drinks you'll probably start to slur your words, get blurred vision and lose your coordination. Alcohol affects your mood and can also make you feel down or aggressive.

On average, it takes the liver about one hour to break down one unit of alcohol. Contrary to some myths, there is no way to speed up this process and only time will sober you up. Remember, you might still be over the legal limit for driving the morning after a heavy night's drinking!

How quickly alcohol is processed in your body and the amount that stays in your blood is affected by different factors including the following:

Size/weight

People who are smaller and weigh less will feel the effects of alcohol more quickly because they have less tissue to absorb it.

Whether or not you've eaten

Food slows down the rate of absorption – that's why alcohol affects you more quickly on an empty stomach.

Type of drink

Alcohol mixed with water or fruit juice is absorbed more slowly, while fizzy drinks or mixers speed up the absorption process.

Age

Younger people tend to be smaller, weigh less and less experienced in dealing with the effects of alcohol. It will therefore have a greater effect on them and do more damage than it would to an older person. Alcohol can be particularly damaging to teenage brains, which are still developing. As people get older, changes such as increased body fat and decreased body water content affect how alcohol is processed by the body, making older people more susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

Gender

However sexist it may sound, it's a fact that alcohol affects women more quickly than men:

  • Women are generally smaller and weigh less than men, and have less tissue to absorb alcohol.
  • Women's bodies are made up of more fat and less water than men's. So if a man and a woman are the same size and drink the same amount, the alcohol is stronger in the woman's blood than in the man’s and she will get drunk more quickly and feel the effects for longer.
  • Women have lower levels of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol, so alcohol will stay in their system longer and have a greater effect.
  • Women also feel the effects of alcohol more quickly than normal just before a period and during ovulation. The contraceptive pill can have the opposite effect – it takes longer for the alcohol to leave the body and a woman may drink more than she realises before she feels the effects.

Women who drink heavily on a regular basis are more likely than men to damage their health.