How Alcohol is Processed by the Human Body


Everything that is taken into the human body is processed in some manner.  Some items are turned into a usable form while other things are discarded.  Alcohol has the distinction of being processed by the body as well as being absorbed by the body.

In a nutshell, our body’s metabolism takes the food and liquid we consume and turn it into other usable forms.  One of the processes involved in metabolism is oxidation.  It is through this function that our bodies detoxify alcohol and take it out of the blood stream.  This stops the alcohol from accumulating inside the body and causing damage to cells, tissues and organs.  Unfortunately, not all of the alcohol is able to be metabolized (converted) as soon as it is ingested.  The alcohol that has not been processed by the body is distributed throughout the bloodstream where it can affect the brain.


How Metabolism Works

Everything that is taken into the body by mouth goes through the stomach.  Alcohol travels from the stomach to both the large and small intestine and then into the blood stream.  This is also referred to as absorption. Enzymes within our body break down the alcohol.  Within the liver are two different enzymes working to break down the alcohol.  One enzyme is known as alcohol dehydrogenase (ACH) which converts alcohol into a substance called acetaldehyde.  This substance is then changed by other enzymes into acetate.  From this form it is easy for the body to change it into carbon dioxide and water.

The second enzyme working in the liver on alcohol is called cytochrome P450IIE1 (CYP2E1).  This particular enzyme has been known to rise in quantity in the body after significant consumption of alcohol.


Limits on Processing

Just as each body is limited by how much weight it can lift, how fast it can run or how much food it can eat, there is a limit to the amount of alcohol that anyone’s liver can process.

The rate at which you or anyone else processes alcohol has nothing to do with how MUCH alcohol you’ve ingested.

Any alcohol that is not properly processed by the metabolic process ends up in the person’s breath, urine, and bloodstream.

The speed at which the body can process alcohol depends on the number of proper enzymes currently within the liver.  This number has been shown to be very different from one person to another.

Generally speaking, after consuming 1 average drink, that person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches its highest point within 30 to 45 minutes.

An average drink is defined as the following:


  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled beverage


Alcohol can be absorbed into the body rather quickly.  However, it takes a considerably longer time to metabolize properly.  This slower process is the reasons so many people advocate drinking in moderation in order to prevent intoxication.


Gender and Food Influences on Alcohol Metabolism

Most people that drink alcoholic beverages have long known that drinking after a full meal helps delay intoxication.  This is because the alcohol is not being absorbed into the bloodstream as quickly thanks to the presence of food.  With a full stomach the body must first process the food, then the liquid, before emptying the contents into the large and small intestines.

Studies have shown that people who drink with an empty stomach absorb alcohol into their blood stream about three times faster than people who have completed a balanced meal consisting of carbohydrates, fat and protein.  A higher fat content of food has shown to make this process even slower.

Besides the presence of food, a person’s gender plays a role in absorption and metabolism.  Two different factors have been tested and proven to show that, on average, women typically report a higher BAC than an average man when they have drank the same amount of alcohol.

One of these factors is the general size of women compared to men.  Since most women are smaller than an average man their body has a smaller amount of water.  The alcohol can absorb into the blood faster since there is less water competing for the same space.

In addition, the enzyme ADH mentioned earlier does not appear in the same numbers in the stomach of women as opposed to the stomach of men.  Due to these two items it has been shown that women who consume amounts of alcohol equal to their male counterparts are more susceptible to problems with liver and heart associated with alcohol, and more likely to blow ‘over the limit’ when test using a PBT (preliminary breath test) or Breathalyzer.


By Richard Jacobs

Share |