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Facts About Alcohol

People around the world consume many types of alcohol in various cultural settings. Drinking on occasion with friends, relatives, and co-workers is often a part of celebrations and socializing. However, for too many people, this activity becomes excessive and reckless. In the United States, 95,000 people die from alcohol-related factors each year. It’s one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the U.S. Ignorance is not bliss. Knowing the basic facts about alcohol is the first step to prevention.

Alcohol is the term used for ethanol, the substance suitable for humans to drink, versus methanol, which is toxic. Fermented grain, fruit juice, and honey have been used to make alcohol (ethyl alcohol or ethanol) for about 10,000 years. There is evidence that humans imbibed in alcohol in China, circa 7000 B.C., Babylonians worshiped a wine goddess as early as 2700 B.C., and Ancient Greek literature even warned against excessive drinking.

Because it is legal and socially acceptable, it can make it that much more difficult to quit drinking. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse you may have several questions about alcohol and its effects. An important part of recovery is learning the why’s, what’s, when’s and how’s of addiction. Here are some facts and frequently asked questions about alcohol and alcohol abuse.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

How long alcohol stays in your system depends on a number of factors. In general, it takes around an hour for your body to metabolize one ounce of alcohol. Alcohol can be detected in urine tests for several days after drinking. Blood tests can detect alcohol for several hours after drinking. To give you some perspective, if you drink a large glass of wine, your body takes about three hours to break down the alcohol. If you drink a beer, your body takes about two hours to break it down. A pint of strong lager will take longer. 

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As the body processes alcohol, 20% of it moves directly into the blood vessels and is carried throughout the body and to the brain. The rest enters the bloodstream after being absorbed by the small intestines. This process is faster on an empty stomach.  When there’s food in the stomach and intestines, it takes longer to absorb and metabolize alcohol and become intoxicated. 

After entering the bloodstream, alcohol is metabolized in the liver. People get intoxicated at different rates and from different amounts of alcohol. However, a healthy liver metabolizes alcohol at the same rate regardless of sex, race, or weight. But the thing is, alcohol metabolism in the liver is not the only factor that determines how fast alcohol leaves the body. Other factors that affect alcohol metabolism include:

  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Medications
  • Body fat percentage
  • How fast you’re drinking alcohol
  • How much food you eat before and during drinking

Your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) from a single ounce of alcohol will rise to approximately 0.015, which means that the same amount of alcohol must pass out of you in that hour. A blood alcohol level of 0.08, the legal limit for driving, takes 5.5 hours to leave the system. This formula will vary when you drink alcohol faster than the liver can metabolize it.

How Long Does it Take to Digest Alcohol?

The time it takes for your body to digest and metabolize alcohol depends on several factors. These can include:

  • Weight
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Time between drinks
  • If you’re on medications
  • If you’ve recently eaten
  • The amount of “alcohol enzymes” in your liver

The body has a straightforward process for digesting alcohol. The amount of time alcohol stays in your system has more to do with how you drink than any other factors. If you’ve ever had more than your “normal” number of standard drinks, you may recall when your buzz started to turn bad. 

Unlike food or other types of drugs, alcohol requires little to no digestion when breaking it down into a digestible form. Once in the stomach, some of the alcohol moves directly into the small blood vessels that carry water and nutrients throughout the body. The remaining amount moves into the small intestines where it enters another group of small blood vessels that travel through the body. The rate alcohol enters the body slows down with food. Slower absorption rates help to increase the time it takes you to get fully intoxicated.

Is Alcoholism a Disease?

Some addiction experts refer to alcoholism as a disease. This is based on some of the following characteristics of alcoholism:

  • Repeated alcohol use changes the brain.
  • Alcoholism can be a chronic, relapsing condition.
  • A lack of control over alcohol consumption.
  • An alcohol dependence (physically needing alcohol for normal functioning).
  • Alcohol cravings.
  • Alcohol withdrawal.

While alcoholism shares similar characteristics of other chronic conditions, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to overcome. Medical and behavioral treatments can help repair the physical damage of alcohol abuse. Alcoholics can develop new insights and coping skills that help them refrain from drinking and move past alcohol addiction.

Signs You Have an Alcohol Problem

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol, here are some signs of alcoholism to be aware of:

  • Needing increasing amounts of alcohol to get the same effect.
  • Inability to cut down or quit drinking alcohol.
  • Having alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking.
  • Drinking in the morning to stave off withdrawal symptoms or “feel normal.”
  • Continuing to drink despite negative effects on your relationships, job, finances, and quality of life.
  • Hiding or lying about alcohol use.
  • Inability to keep alcohol in the house without drinking it.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol?

Alcohol causes serious long-term health effects under certain conditions of alcohol abuse. As a depressant, alcohol slows down the central nervous system. Alcohol affects just about every physical and mental activity. The body readily accepts and absorbs alcohol as soon as you take a drink. Regular or heavy drinking makes it harder for your body to absorb and release alcohol. If this happens too many times, it can lead to brain damage and body tissue damage.

Long-term alcohol abuse may also put you at risk for an additional set of issues known as wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. “Wet brain” is a form of brain damage from repeated and heavy exposure to alcohol. The condition is tied to low levels of thiamine, also known as a vitamin B1 deficiency. Thiamine is an essential vitamin in the body that doesn’t occur naturally. You must ingest it to achieve the daily recommended amount. 

The amount of thiamine in your system can decrease from eating poorly, which is common in people with alcohol use disorders (AUD). It affects the lower portions of the brain, which plays a role in memory. It can take days, weeks, and even months to recover from wet brain, and most often has lasting lifelong damage.

Alcohol abuse also puts you at higher risk for health effects like:

  • Liver disease
  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Certain cancers
  • Compromised immune system
  • Mental health disorders
  • Stroke and heart attack
  • Dementia
  • Memory and learning problems
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome in your child if drinking while pregnant

How Much Alcohol Is Safe?

Healthcare professionals have set guidelines for moderate drinking. If you don’t drink beyond these amounts of alcoholic beverages, your risk for health problems due to drinking should be much less. 

Moderate drinking levels are:

  • One drink per day for women
  • Two drinks per day for men

People who don’t exceed the below guidelines are thought to have a lower risk of developing an alcohol use disorder:

  • No more than three drinks a day and no more than 7 drinks per week for women
  • No more than four drinks a day and no more than 14 drinks per week for men

What is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is heavy drinking over a short period, like several drinks per hour. Binge drinking usually leads to a legal level of intoxication within a couple of hours. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines heavy drinking as:

  • Five or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) defines binge drinking as:

  • A pattern of drinking that brings blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically requires that women consume four drinks and men consume five drinks in about two hours. 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, when surveyed, 25.8% of people 18 and older said they binge drink in the last month.

If you meet the criteria for heavy drinking or binge drinking, there is cause for significant concern. 

What Causes Alcoholism?

People abuse alcohol for a number of reasons. Many times, it’s the perfect storm of several risk factors for drug and alcohol addiction. A few of these include:

  • Mental health disorders – People with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and trauma may drink to feel better. Alcohol may temporarily relieve mental health symptoms, but eventually this form of self-medication backfires. Mental health symptoms may come back stronger.
  • Family history of alcohol abuse – If a close relative abuses alcohol, you’re at risk of doing the same. This is the case from a genetic and environmental viewpoint. There is thought to be a biological link between family members who drink. Growing up around alcohol abuse can normalize excessive drinking also. 
  • Underage drinking Research shows that people who begin drinking in their early teens are at greater risk for alcoholism later in life.

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Genes are thought to be responsible for about half of your risk of alcoholism. Some research has found alcoholics share some common gene variations. Having certain genes or alcoholic family members doesn’t guarantee you’ll develop an addiction. It means that you’re at greater risk of becoming an alcoholic. 

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Like?

Alcohol withdrawal can be painful and dangerous without medical help. About half of alcoholics will go into withdrawal when they quit drinking. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on the extent of your alcohol abuse and physical health. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Shakiness/tremors
  • Seizures/delirium tremens
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • High body temperature
  • High heart rate and blood pressure
  • Problems sleeping
  • Agitation

Alcohol detox should always take place under the care of medical professionals. They will make the process safe and less painful with 24/7 care. Medical detox for alcohol may include medications to ease withdrawal symptoms. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can also be very dangerous and even deadly. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can vary from person to person, but may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Heart palpitations
  • Confusion
  • Insomnia
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)

Alcohol detox should always take place under medical supervision. A medical detox program like the one at Vogue Recovery Center includes 24/7 monitoring to ensure you are safe. Staff provide medications that can ease withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

How Long Is Alcohol Detox?

How long alcohol detox takes depends on:

  • How long you’ve been abusing alcohol.
  • How much alcohol you drink.
  • Your physical health.
  • Any medical conditions or mental health disorders that may complicate alcohol detox.

Generally, alcohol detox can take between 2-5 days. The most intense withdrawal symptoms usually happen within 48 hours after your last drink. You may experience lingering mental health issues like anxiety and depression for several months after you stop drinking. It’s important to attend an intensive outpatient or residential treatment facility after detox to prevent relapse.

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Can You Overdose on Alcohol?

Alcohol overdose or alcohol poisoning can happen when you drink excessive amounts of alcohol over a short period of time causing your blood alcohol level to skyrocket. Alcohol poisoning may cause parts of your brain to stop functioning. These parts play critical roles in breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of six Americans die from alcohol poisoning every day. 

Signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Low body temperature
  • Feeling disoriented
  • Irregular breathing

What Is the Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?

Alcohol abuse often harms your health, relationships, and career. Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to full-blown alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism can cause some of the same physical and behavioral problems. The main difference is that alcoholism is an addiction and chronic disease. When you have an alcohol use disorder, you:

  • Have a physical dependence on alcohol.
  • Are unable to quit drinking or cut back on your own.
  • Experience alcohol withdrawal when you quit drinking.
  • Crave alcohol.
  • Continue to drink despite negative consequences.

Alcohol abuse puts you at great risk for alcoholism. People who abuse alcohol regularly should get alcohol treatment before they develop an alcohol dependency and to prevent or stop more damage to their physical and mental health.

Why Can’t Alcoholics Stop Drinking?

Over time, substance abuse can change your brain. Alcohol affects brain chemicals that help regulate mood and important functions. When you abuse alcohol regularly, your body starts thinking having alcohol in its system is the new normal. It starts relying on alcohol to produce certain brain chemicals and function. 

Because alcohol is playing such an important role in functioning, your brain essentially instructs you to do whatever you need to get the alcohol it thinks it requires. Alcohol cravings are powerful. That’s why people compromise their jobs, relationships and personal lives over it. When you’re dependent on alcohol, it’s in the driver’s seat, making decisions. With medical detox and alcohol treatment, the brain and body begin returning to normal. That’s why a professional treatment program is usually necessary for long-term recovery.

Why Is Underage Drinking So Risky?

Research shows drinking is particularly dangerous for youth. Alcohol use by underage drinkers is linked to many other risky behaviors. These include:

  • Tobacco use
  • Co-occurring illicit substance use
  • Sexually risky behaviors
  • Lower school performance
  • Conduct problems
  • Delinquency 

Youth who use alcohol before age 15 are six times more likely to become alcohol dependent than adults who begin drinking at age 21. Underage drinking is also linked to the three highest causes of:

  • Adolescent mortality
  • Drinking-related car accidents
  • Suicide
  • Homicide

What Is a Dual Diagnosis?

A dual diagnosis is when substance abuse occurs with other mental health issues. This is also called co-occurring disorders. For example, mental health disorders like depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand with alcoholism. Sometimes people drink because they feel alcohol relieves some of their mental health symptoms. Other times, alcohol abuse can bring about mental health issues. In either case, both conditions need to be treated at the same time in order to get better. 

Looking for Help?

If these facts about alcohol have left you wondering if you or a loved one needs alcohol rehab, call Vogue Recovery Center for a free, confidential consultation. We will answer all of your questions about treatment and work directly with your insurance to determine your coverage for addiction treatment. We offer inpatient rehab and outpatient rehab and personalize your treatment plan to your clinical needs, preferences, and life situation. Don’t wait another day to get the help you need.

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Arthur Rice

Medically Reviewed by Arthur Rice, CPC-I

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