Alcohol Effects

FACTS ON: The Effects of Alcohol

By Gail Gleason Milgram, Ed.D

Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is a clear, thin, odorless liquid that
boils at 173 degrees F (78 degrees C). It can burn, it can be mixed with
water in any proportion, and it is one of the few alcohols that is made
for consumption; however, it never exists full-strength in any alcoholic
beverage. Ethyl alcohol is the subject of this fact sheet, and from now
on will be referred to simply as “alcohol”.

Alcohol is produced during a natural process called fermentation,
which occurs when yeast, a microscopic plant that floats freely in the
air, reacts with the sugar in fruit or vegetable juice, creating alcohol
and releasing carbon dioxide. The process stops naturally when about 11%
to 14% of the juice is alcohol; the product of this fermentation is wine.
A similar process is used to make beer.

Distillation is the process used to make beverages with a higher
alcohol content. In this process the fermented liquid is heated until it
vaporizes, and then the vapor is cooled until it condenses into a liquid
again. Distilled alcoholic beverages (e.g., whiskey, gin, vodka, and rum)
contain 40% to 50% alcohol. They are sometimes referred to as “spirits”
or “hard liquor”.

When someone drinks an alcoholic beverage it flows into the stomach.
While it is in the stomach, the drinker does not feel the effects of the
alcohol, but alcohol does not remain in the stomach very long. Some of it
is absorbed through the stomach walls into the bloodstream, but most
alcohol passes into the small intestine and then into the bloodstream,
and this circulates throughout the body. Once alcohol is in the
bloodstream it reaches the brain and the drinker begins to feel its
effects. The reason that a large person does not feel the effects of a
drink as quickly as a small person is because the large person has more
blood and other body fluids and will not have as high a level of alcohol
in the blood after drinking the same amount of alcohol.

The body disposes of alcohol in two ways: elimination and oxidation.
Only about 10% of the alcohol in the body leaves by elimination from the
lungs and kidneys. About 90% of the alcohol leaves by oxidation. The
liver plays a major role in the body’s oxidation of alcohol. When alcohol
enters the liver, some of it is changed to a chemical called acetaldehyde
. When acetaldehyde is combined with oxygen, acetic acid is formed. When
the acetic acid is further combined with oxygen, carbon dioxide and water
are formed.

The oxidation of alcohol produces calories. One ounce of pure alcohol
contains about 163 calories (or about 105 calories in a 1 12 ounce glass
of whiskey or gin), but it does not contain vitamins or other physically
beneficial nutrients. The liver can oxidize only a certain amount of
alcohol each minute; the oxidation rate of alcohol in a person weighing
150 pounds, for example, is about 7 grams of alcohol per hour. This is
equivalent to about 34 of an ounce of distilled spirits, 2 12 ounces of
wine, or 7 34 to 8 ounces of beer per hour. If a person drank no more
than 34 of an ounce of whiskey or half a bottle of beer every hour, the
alcohol would never accumulate in the body, the person would feel little
of the effects of the alcohol, and would not become intoxicated.

Oxidation continues until all the alcohol has left the body. Since the
body can remove only a small amount of alcohol at a time, those who
choose to drink are advised to drink slowly.

The effects of alcohol on an individual depend on a variety of
factors. These include:

How one feels before drinking: If a person is upset and tense, very
excited, sad, nervous, or even extremely happy, he or she may tend to
gulp drinks and actually consume more alcohol than planned.

What the drinker expects alcohol to do: Some people expect a drink to
help them feel relaxed, happy, angry or sad. Quite naturally, these
feelings can be produced by the drink; how you want to feel helps you
feel that way.

How much one drinks: A person who has one drink during dinner is not
likely to feel the effects of alcohol. But having six drinks before and
during dinner means the individual might not make it through dessert.

How long one takes to drink: This is a critical factor: four drinks in
one hour will have an obvious effect on the drinker, but the same four
drinks over a four-hour period will probably have a very slight, if any,
effect. Type of alcoholic beverage: Some beverages have more alcohol in
them than others. Beer has about 4.5% alcohol, “table wines” average from
11% to 14%, “fortified” or “dessert wines” (such as sherry or port) have
16% to 20%, and distilled spirits range from 40% to 50%. However, in
normal size, each drink (i.e., 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1
1/2 ounces of distilled spirits) contains approximately the same amount
of alcohol.

Size of the drinker: Because of the way alcohol circulates in the
body, the size of the drinker also relates to the effects of alcohol. A
person weighing 220 pounds will not feel the effects of a drink as much
as a person weighing 120 pounds.

Food in the stomach: The alcohol consumed does not affect the drinker
until it has been absorbed into the bloodstream. Food in the stomach
slows the alcohol’s absorption, so that a person who has a drink after
eating a meal will feel less effect than a person who has a drink on an
empty stomach.

Experience in using alcoholic beverages: Someone drinking a glass of
wine may experience light-headedness the first time, but will probably
not experience that effect on subsequent occasions. However, most
individuals who drink know what to expect from various amounts of alcohol
because of their prior experience with drinking.

Alcohol acts directly on the brain, and affects its ability to work.
The effects of alcohol on the brain are quite complex, but alcohol is
usually classified as a depressant. Judgment is the first function of the
brain to be affected; the ability to think and make decisions becomes
impaired. As more alcohol is consumed, the motor functions of the body
are affected.

The effects of alcohol are directly related to the concentration
(percentage) of alcohol in the blood; however, the effects vary among
individuals and even in the same individual at different times. In the
following description, the blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) are those
that would probably be found in a person weighing about 150 pounds:

At a BAC of 0.03% (after about one cocktail, one glass of wine, or one
bottle of beer), the drinker will feel relaxed and experience a slight
feeling of exhilaration.

At 0.06% (after two cocktails, two glasses of wine, or two bottles of
beer), the drinker will experience a feeling of warmth and relaxation;
there will be a decrease of fine motor skills and he or she will be less
concerned with minor irritations.

At 0.09% (after three cocktails, three glasses of wine, or three
bottles of beer), reaction time will be slowed, muscle control will be
poor, speech will be slurred and the legs will feel wobbly.

At 0.12% (after four cocktails, four glasses of wine, or four bottles
of beer), his or her judgment will be clouded, inhibitions and
self-restraint lessened, and the ability to reason and make logical
decisions will be impaired.

At 0.15% (after five cocktails, five glasses of wine, or five bottles
of beer), vision will be blurred, speech unclear, walking will be
unsteady, and coordination impaired. At 0.18% (after six cocktails, six
glasses of wine, or six bottles of beer), all of the drinker’s behavior
will be impaired, and he or she will find it difficult to stay awake.

At a BAC of about 0.30% alcohol in the blood (after 10 to 12 drinks),
the drinker will be in a semi-stupor or deep sleep. Most people are not
able to stay awake to reach a BAC higher than 0.30%.

If the BAC reaches 0.50% the drinker is in a deep coma and in danger
of death. As the alcohol level reaches 1% in the blood, the breathing
center in the brain becomes paralyzed and death occurs.

In many states a BAC of 0.10% is considered legal evidence that a
driver is intoxicated; some states use a BAC of 0.08%. In some European
countries the legal BAC is as low as 0.05%.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Johnston, L.D., O’Malley, P.M., & Bachman, J.G. (1993). National
survey results on drug use from the monitoring the future study 1975-1992
Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Milgram, G. G. (1990). The facts about drinking: Coping with alcohol
use, abuse, and alcoholis. Mt. Vernon, NY: Consumers Union.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1993). Eighth
special report to the U.S. Congress on alcohol and health from the
Secretary of Health and Human Services. (NIH publication no. 94-3699).
Rockville, MD: National Institutes of Health.


Gail Gleason Milgram, Ed.D., is a Professor and Director of the
Education and Training Division at the Rutgers University Center of
Alcohol Studies

Center of Alcohol Studies
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
607 Allison Road,Piscataway, NJ 08854-8001
Telephone: (732)445-2190
Fax: (732)445-350
CAS Library (732)445-4442
Fact Sheet No. 15 (2)

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