How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
How Is Alcohol Processed in the Body?
Alcohol, or ethanol, is metabolized in the liver; on average, it takes about an hour for a person to metabolize about 14 grams of pure ethanol—the amount of alcohol contained in one standard drink—which amounts to roughly 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor.1,7 Several factors influence the rate at which alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream. For example, food in the stomach slows gastric emptying and alcohol absorption.
Gender differences also exist in terms of the blood alcohol level (BAC) resulting from comparable quantity of alcohol consumed. In terms of body composition, women have relatively less water in their bodies than men, which can result in women having higher blood concentrations of alcohol when they drink the same amount of alcohol as men.2,8
If you’ve ever had more than your “fair share” of drinks, you may recall a point where the “buzz” started to turn bad, which can happen sometimes after the alcohol digestion process gets overwhelmed—and blood levels of alcohol rise more quickly than the liver is able to clear it from the blood. In addition to acute intoxication, consistently elevated blood alcohol levels are associated with a number of adverse health effects and can result in cumulative damage to brain and other tissues/organs throughout the body.
How Is Alcohol Absorbed and Processed?
As a legally obtained substance, alcohol is one of the most accessible central nervous system (CNS) depressant drugs around, which helps to explain the high rates of problematic drinking and alcoholism both in the US and throughout the world. As a CNS depressant, alcohol slows down certain central nervous system processes and can negatively impact motor skills, reaction time, and cognitive abilities.1
After drinking, alcohol passes from the stomach and intestines into the bloodstream. Once in the blood, alcohol undergoes various steps of enzymatic metabolism and is progressively broken down into acetaldehyde, acetate, and, ultimately, carbon dioxide and water as it is cleared from the body.2
The rate at which alcohol enters the bloodstream prior to being broken down slows down when ingested with food.3 Slower absorption rates help to increase the time it takes a person to feel the full effects of intoxication. However, delayed absorption may also result in the alcohol that remains in the gastrointestinal system continuing to enter the bloodstream long after the last drink—resulting in potentially escalating levels of impaired judgment and coordination for hours.1
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Liver Metabolism Rates
Once alcohol enters the bloodstream, it is primarily metabolized by enzymes in the liver.3
The involved enzymatic steps take some time to metabolize any amount of alcohol consumed. As a result, once the rate of consumption outstrips the rate of metabolism, each subsequent drink will contribute to an increasing blood alcohol concentration. As the rate of ethanol metabolism is somewhat fixed, the more you drink, the longer unmetabolized alcohol stays in the system. For most people, alcohol leaves the body at a rate of 0.015 grams of alcohol for every 100 mL of blood per hour, meaning that it could take several hours to sober up from intoxicating blood alcohol levels.4
Once a person’s blood alcohol levels go above .05%, a detectable level of intoxication begins to develop.5
As BAC levels increase, the negative effects of intoxication may become more pronounced. People who, at first, may have experienced a somewhat mild sedation and pleasant change in mood may begin to become increasingly disoriented and, in some cases, depressed and irritable.
What Is Considered Excessive Drinking?
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive drinking entails binge drinking (4 or more drinks in a sitting for women, 5 or more for men), heavy drinking (8 or more drinks in a week for women, 15 or more for men), and/or any drinking behavior in pregnant or underaged individuals.7
More moderate drinking might look like 1 drink per day for women and as many as 2 drinks a day for men; for people who do not already drink, even these moderate levels are not recommended as any alcohol intake is associated with significant health risks—both in the short and long term.7
Health Conditions Associated with Excessive Drinking
Drinking can harm the body over time. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol consumption is causally linked with risk of the development of several serious, chronic conditions. Some of these alcohol-related conditions include:6
- Liver disease (e.g., alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver failure, hepatocellular carcinoma).
- Cancer (e.g., breast, head and neck, gastrointestinal cancers).
- Cardiovascular disease (e.g., chronic hypertension, alcoholic cardiomyopathy).
- Cerebrovascular disease (e.g., ischemic stroke).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2019). Alcohol.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1997). Alcohol Metabolism. NIAAA, 35, 371.
- Zakhari, S., (2006). Overview: How Is Alcohol Metabolized by the Body? Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 2006; 29(4):245-254.
- Bowling Green State University. (n.d.). Alcohol Metabolism.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment.
- Shield, K.D., Parry, C., Rehm, J. (2013). Focus On: Chronic Diseases and Conditions Related to Alcohol Use. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 35(2), 155-173.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Fact Sheets-Alcohol Use and Your Health.
- Cedarbaum, A.I., (2012). Alcohol Metabolism. Clinics in Liver Disease. 2012 Nov; 16(4): 667-685.