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How Long Does it Take for Alcohol to Kick in?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol reaches your bloodstream after the first sip. Alcohol’s effects begin to set in within about 10 minutes.

However, alcohol’s effects will vary depending on your BAC or blood alcohol level/concentration. This figure represents the quantity of alcohol in your bloodstream. The more your BAC rises, the more alcohol will impact your cognitive and physical capacities. 

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How quickly you drink will influence the time it takes for certain effects to occur. For example, if you participate in binge drinking, which is:

  • 5 or more alcoholic beverages within two hours for males 
  • 4 or more alcoholic beverages within two hours for females

You can experience a broader range of effects caused by excessive alcohol consumption in a shorter time.

Because drinking alcohol could pose a risk to your health, healthcare professionals recommend abstaining from consumption or having alcoholic beverages in moderation. 

What is Considered a Standard Drink?

According to guidelines established in the United States, a standard drink will not have more than 0.6 ounces (14.0 grams or 1.2 tablespoons) of pure alcohol. 

So, you can better understand how much alcohol that is in general, you can use the following drink measurements to compare:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
  • 5 ounce glass of wine (12% alcohol content)
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits 

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How Long Does it Take for Alcohol to Kick in on an Empty Stomach? 

You are recommended to drink on a full stomach because food helps slow the alcohol absorption rate in the stomach and small intestine. Alcohol begins to have effects on the body within approximately 10 minutes. 

However, it is important to remember that eating food before consuming alcohol will not prevent the beverage from reaching the bloodstream. 

If you decide to drink on an empty stomach, alcohol can enter the bloodstream more quickly and raise your BAC level. If your BAC increases, you can experience different effects of alcohol, such as speech impairment or coordination problems. 

How Long Does it Take for Alcohol to Affect Brain Function?

Alcohol takes approximately 5 minutes to reach the brain, although the beverage’s effects occur around 10 minutes. 

When your BAC increases, alcohol begins to affect the brain and nervous system. This means you can experience changes in judgement and decision-making capabilities and become more uninhibited. 

At the same time, because alcohol impacts cells in the nervous system, you can feel lightheadedness, slower reaction times, and more inadequate coordination skills. 

This list describes more effects caused by alcohol on the brain and nervous system. As you’ll see, alcohol’s effects can range from mild to moderate, depending on how much and how quickly you drink:

  • Initial phase of euphoria
  • Memory and reasoning impairment 
  • Disorientation 
  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion 
  • Blackouts (loss of consciousness and memory)

In more severe cases, if your BAC reaches 0.30, you run the risk of coma or brain damage. This occurs because alcohol slows breathing and circulation, preventing oxygen from reaching the brain. 

If your BAC goes over 0.35, you could die from alcohol intoxication (poisoning) or by the brain’s inability to regulate all of your vital physical functions. 

What Do The Effects of Alcohol Feel Like?

The effects of alcohol will be different according to your BAC levels. 

If you have a BAC between 0.01-0.03, you might feel a bit more euphoric (or happy). You may even shed inhibitions. 

However, the feeling will not last. As the BAC level increases, alcohol’s effects become more intense. With a BAC between 0.16-0.20, you may experience dysphoric (unsatisfied) sensations and nausea. You may be disoriented, slurring your words and losing your balance. 

There may even come the point where your BAC is so high that you are mentally confused and need help walking. The effects of alcohol will not be pleasant and can raise the risk of health complications. 

Among adults aged 20 to 64 years, excessive drinking was the cause of 1 in 10 deaths.

How Long Do The Effects of Alcohol Last?

The duration of alcohol’s effects on the body will depend on your blood alcohol concentration  (BAC). If you remember, BAC represents the speed by which your body absorbs, distributes, metabolizes, and eliminates the beverage. 

The liver can only metabolize one standard drink per hour. This means that if you consume more than one standard drink within an hour, you increase your BAC level, and your liver needs more time to break down the alcohol.

For example, if you have a BAC of 0.08 (the legal drinking limit), your body will take approximately 5.5 hours to eliminate the alcohol. Because alcohol remains present in your system, it can still have effects on the body. 

Can You “Sleep Off” Alcohol?

No. You cannot “sleep off” alcohol. 

When you stop drinking alcohol or are unconscious/sleeping, it does not mean that your BAC will stay steady or even go down. The body will continue letting alcohol enter the bloodstream. Because alcohol circulates throughout, your BAC level can rise and cause harm to your health. 

Your body needs time, and only that, to eliminate alcohol from its system. 

Other Factors That Influence Alcohol’s Effects

The Amount of Alcohol You Drink

The quantity of alcohol consumed will influence your BAC level and, subsequently, the substance’s effects on the body. The liver cannot metabolize more than one standard drink in an hour. If you have more than that amount within the same time frame, your BAC level will rise, as well as the effects caused by alcohol. 

Alcohol Tolerance Level

Alcohol consumption impacts bodily functions and influences how you behave or act. However, if you drink alcohol on a more frequent basis, i.e. chronic drinking, you can develop tolerance to some of alcohol’s effects. 

If you have become tolerant to alcohol, consuming a constant amount of it has a lesser effect. You’ll need more alcohol to experience the same effect.

If You’ve Eaten Recently

If you drink alcohol, you should do so when you’ve eaten some food recently. Having meals, especially those high in protein, can slow the rate of alcohol that enters the bloodstream. It can also help prevent the liver from becoming overwhelmed due to alcohol metabolism. 

A lower BAC, even temporarily, could mean less severe effects caused by the substance.

Additionally, if you have diabetes, drinking alcohol on an empty stomach increases your risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels). If left untreated, hypoglycemia can cause coma and result in death. 

Your Weight

Your body weight can determine the quantity of space by which alcohol diffuses. For instance, a person who weighs 130 pounds can have two beers and a lower BAC than another person who drinks the same quantity but weighs less.

If you have a high muscle mass, your body can absorb and metabolize alcohol more effectively than a person with an elevated body fat percentage. This will help contribute to a lower BAC and, as a result, lesser effects due to alcohol consumption.

Your Biological Sex

Females will have higher BAC levels in less time than males due to biological differences:

  • Body composition — females have a higher body fat percentage than males. This means that alcohol can accumulate in the bloodstream and increase BAC levels. 
  • Stomach ADH — ADH (alcohol dehydrogenase) is an alcoholic-metabolizing enzyme that is not commonly found in females’ stomachs. Because of this, females will not break down as much alcohol as males before the substance enters the bloodstream.   
  • Liver ADH — ADH in a female’s liver is not as efficient in alcohol metabolism when compared to ADH in a male’s liver. This, too, will lead to an increase in BAC. 

Menstrual Cycle (Women)

It is important to say that only a few studies have assessed the role of females’ menstrual cycles on their behavioral response to alcohol in controlled laboratory conditions. 

Yet, some findings have been reported. For example, alcohol might enhance some of the dysphoric (unease or dissatisfaction) sensations during the cycle’s luteal phase (last phase). 

On the other hand, periods can increase the likelihood of dehydration. Because alcohol, too, leads to dehydration, the effects caused by the substance can be stronger.  

If You’re Taking Medications or Drugs

Your body processes alcohol in the liver. However, your liver could be responsible for breaking down other medications, e.g., Ambien (a type of drug to treat insomnia). If you take medications or drugs while drinking alcohol, you run the risk of worsening side effects or overwhelming the hepatic organ. 

Also, older or debilitated people have an increased risk of serious alcohol-medication interactions. When you get older, the body cannot process either of the substances as effectively. If both substances are present in the body for a longer time, the likelihood of interactions rises, and with that, the possibility of negative health consequences. 

Genetics

Multiple studies have shown that a leading factor influencing a person’s response to alcohol, especially in males, is a family history of alcoholism. 

More specifically, males with a first-degree family history of alcoholism were reported to be less sensitive to some behavioral effects caused by alcohol. 

Also, depending on your genes, your rate of alcohol metabolism may vary. Some people of Asian descent have a gene variant that influences how fast they can break down alcohol and causes symptoms like flushing or nausea. 

Dangers & Effects of Drinking Too Much

When you drink too much, you face both short- and long-term risks and dangers.

In the short-term, you may experience or suffer from:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Injuries, including motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns
  • Violence, such as homicide, suicide, sexual assault, or domestic violence
  • Alcohol poisoning (intoxication)
  • Risky sexual behaviors, such as unprotected sex or sex with different partners

In the long-term, you may experience or suffer from:

  • High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems
  • Cancer (breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, or colon)
  • A weakened immune system
  • Learning and memory issues
  • Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis
  • Social problems, like job or family relationship troubles
  • Alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder (AUD)

How to Prevent Overdrinking

If you would like to prevent overdrinking, there are different possibilities. 

You can:

  • Drink a glass of water after consuming an alcoholic beverage
  • Write up a list of reasons why you want to hold off on drinking too much
  • Do not keep alcohol at your home or apartment
  • Choose alcohol-free days and become more observant about how you feel and think when you don’t drink
  • Ask your family or friends to give you support as you cut back on drinking
  • Avoid certain settings that could increase your chances of drinking excessively  

Excessive alcohol use causes an estimated 95,000 deaths in the United States annually.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

If you or a loved one want to quit alcohol, it is important to seek medical help. A healthcare professional can assess your case and help choose the most appropriate treatment for you.  

Different treatment programs are available, including:

  • Outpatient care
  • Inpatient treatment centers
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Support groups

Recovery from alcohol addiction is challenging but not impossible. With the help and guided support of professionals, you can live a more fulfilling life.

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Resources

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“11 Ways to Curb Your Drinking.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health Publishing, 25 Mar. 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/11-ways-to-curb-your-drinking.

“Alcohol and Tolerance - Alcohol Alert No. 28-1995.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa28.htm#:~:text=Tolerance%20means%20that%20after%20continued,the%20same%20effect%20(1).

“Drinking Too Much Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. Learn the Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 Feb. 2021, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm.

Evans, Suzette M M, and Frances R Levin. “Response to Alcohol in Women: Role of the Menstrual Cycle and a Family History of Alcoholism.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Mar. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3017640/.

“Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-use-disorder/genetics-alcohol-use-disorder.

“How Alcohol Impacts the Brain.” Northwestern Medicine, Northwestern Medicine, www.nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/alcohol-and-the-brain#:~:text=Alcohol%20reaches%20your%20brain%20in,ounce%20of%20alcohol%20every%20hour.

“Preventing Excessive Alcohol Use.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 Sept. 2020, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/prevention.htm.

“What Is BAC?” What Is BAC? | Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, alcohol.stanford.edu/alcohol-drug-info/buzz-buzz/what-bac.

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