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Alcohol and its effects

What happens to alcohol in my body?

Find out more about how alcohol
can effect you
from our interactive
male and
female bodies

Alcohol is absorbed into your body through the stomach and small intestines. Food slows down the rate of absorption - that's why alcohol affects you more quickly on an empty stomach. Alcohol then flows through the bloodstream throughout the body, reaching your heart, brain, muscles and other tissues. This happens very quickly - within a few minutes. Usually, though not always, this has a pleasant effect.

The role of your liver

Your body can't store alcohol, so it has to break it down - mostly via your liver. Through a complex metabolic process the liver firstly changes alcohol into acetaldehyde, a highly toxic substance. The acetaldehyde is converted by the liver into acetate, a harmless substance, which is then turned into carbon dioxide and water which are then simply excreted from the body.

About 90% - 95% of alcohol consumed is metabolised by the liver. The remaining 5% - 10% is excreted through urine, breath and sweat. Your body's ability to process alcohol depends on various things, like your age, weight and sex. Your body breaks down alcohol at a rate of roughly one standard drink per hour.

Because it takes time for your body to break down alcohol, drinking more than one unit of alcohol an hour will build up your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and it may be many hours before you are safe to drive.

After a night of heavy drinking you risk being over the drink drive limit the next morning.


A larger, heavier person may not be affected by alcohol in the same way as a lighter, smaller person. This is because the larger person has more body fluids. These body fluids dilute the alcohol. Therefore the larger, heavier person may have a lower BAC even when drinking at the same pace the same amount as a smaller person.

Tips to keep your blood alcohol level down are to eat before you start drinking alcohol, to pace yourself by not drinking too fast and to eat whilst drinking, preferably at meal times and to alternate each alcoholic drink with a refreshing soft spacer.


Women have proportionally less body water than men so the concentration of alcohol in their blood stream is proportionately higher. There is also some evidence that women may metabolize alcohol slightly differently. There are small amounts of the enzyme ADH which is responsible for breaking down alcohol in the liver in the lining of the stomach; some people believe that the ADH levels are lower in women and that this might contribute to their higher blood alcohol levels

What makes you feel drunk?

Alcohol is a mood altering substance. It affects the nerves that pass messages around the body by slowing them down and the more you drink the greater the effect. The reason people often get more lively when they've had a drink is that alcohol affects parts of the brain responsible for self-control.

Your reactions also slow down, and you may become uncoordinated or unsteady on your feet. Your speech may get slurred and you may start seeing double. If you've had a lot to drink you may also experience strong emotional responses - for instance you may become aggressive or tearful and because your judgement is impaired, you may do things that you might not normally do - from dancing on tables to going home with strangers. They may seem a good idea at the time, but can be extremely dangerous.

"The danger of drinking too much too fast"

As you drink, the alcohol passes into your bloodstream. Ethanol is the intoxicating part of alcohol and its molecules are so small that they can actually pass into the gaps between brain cells. Here they can interfere with the neurotransmitters (the brain's central post office) that govern all the brain's activities. If you drink faster than one standard drink an hour, alcohol will start to flood the brain. Depending on how much and how fast you're drinking, it can affect the brain stem (even cause it to shut down) and this can interfere with vital body functions. A young person, or somebody unused to drink, may experience this after just a few standard drinks taken in one go. Fortunately, alcohol gives warning signs at each level of penetration into the brain so, if you spot the signs, moderate your drinking, or stop altogether.

Classic warning signs:

You feel giddy
You start to lose the thread of what you're saying
You feel unsteady on your feet
You start seeing double
Look out for these symptoms in your friends too

Tips to avoid feeling sick or passing out are to eat before you start drinking - even a bowl of cereal or a couple of pieces of toast will help. Try and avoid top ups as it's harder to keep track of what you're drinking, - pace yourself - having a non alcoholic drink between each alcoholic drink (preferably water) really helps slow your drinking down and gives your body a chance to break down the alcohol you've already drunk.

Drinking to drunkeness

Getting drunk impairs your judgement and can increase risky behaviour, which could result in:

· Injuries and accidents
· Unsafe sex, which could result in sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies
· You being robbed or going home with a stranger
· Fights, arguments and relationship problems
· Getting into trouble with the cops and getting a criminal record
· In extreme cases, alcoholic poisoning, coma, brain damage and death

If you get drunk or drink heavily on a regular basis you increase your risks of:

· Alcohol dependence or alcoholism
· Sexual difficulties, including impotence
· Cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholic fatty liver
. Cardiac arrest and stroke
· Pancreatitis
· Stomach disorders, such as ulcers
· An increased risk of certain types of cancer, especially of the aero-digestive tract and breast cancer