Social gatherings increase for many of you during this time of year. That could mean you celebrate with a glass of wine, gluten-free beer, or a holiday cocktail. I, too, indulge in the occasional cocktail during the holidays. Yet, do you know how to get alcohol out of your system or how your body processes it?
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating with an alcoholic drink here and there. Your body naturally metabolizes alcohol and removes the toxins. However, long-term or excessive use can slow down that process and could damage your heart, liver, kidneys, and gut health.
It’s important to remember alcohol is a toxin. As a matter of fact, there are two toxins in alcohol the body has to work hard to eliminate. These are acetaldehyde and acetic acid. The form found in most alcoholic beverages is known as ethyl alcohol, which is produced during the fermentation process.
I’m going to tell you how alcohol affects your body, how to get alcohol out of your system, and natural ways you can support your body’s detoxification process. First, let’s talk about how your body processes alcohol.
How Your Body Metabolizes Alcohol
As soon as you swallow your first sip of that glass of wine or cocktail, 20% of the alcohol content is absorbed straight from your gut into your bloodstream.1 The time it takes for your body to absorb all of the alcohol depends on a number of factors, including:
- The amount of alcohol in your drink: Alcohol proof (the amount of alcohol in your drink) is determined by the content of ethanol in an alcoholic beverage. The more alcohol content, the longer it takes for your body to metabolize it.
- Whether or not it’s carbonated: Carbonated alcoholic drinks are absorbed more quickly. Carbonation increases pressure in the stomach, which forces the alcohol content into the bloodstream faster.
- Whether or not you’re drinking on an empty stomach: Alcohol is most quickly absorbed by the small intestine. Food prevents alcohol from passing quickly into your small intestine.2
- Genetics: Variations in the ADH1B and ADH1C genes, which produce the enzymes that break down alcohol, plays a role in your ability to process alcohol.
How Your Body Processes Alcohol
Remember that 20% of the alcohol content in one drink is absorbed into the bloodstream from your stomach. The remaining 80% is absorbed through the small intestine. Your body can process approximately 1 drink per hour. So for example, if you have 5 drinks, it will take your body approximately 5 hours to process the alcohol.
What equates to 1 drink depends on the size and type of alcoholic drink you have. You may be underestimating how much you drink because you (or your generous friend) aren’t using standard measurements. Here’s a guide to help you.
You can feel the effects within 5 to 10 minutes of drinking, however, it takes about 30 to 90 minutes to peak and be carried through all the organs of the body.
Your liver is responsible for breaking down the majority of alcohol in your body. As a matter of fact, 90% of the metabolism of alcohol into water and carbon dioxide is performed by the liver. The remaining 10% is removed through the lungs (breathing), kidneys (urine), and skin (sweating).
Now that you understand how alcohol is processed by your body, let’s talk about how long alcohol stays in your body.
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System
In order to get alcohol out of your system, you have to understand how long it can stay in your body. I mentioned earlier some of the factors that determine how quickly your body processes alcohol. That’s because blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) can vary among people and situations.
For example, if two people each have blood alcohol levels of 20 mg/dL, the alcohol will metabolize in about an hour in each person, but their BAC can be very different.
BAC refers to the amount of alcohol in your blood in relation to the amount of water in your blood. Many different factors affect BAC and how you react to alcohol, including:
- Drinking on an empty stomach
- Medications that interfere with alcohol metabolism such as blood pressure medication, anxiety medications, antidepressants, diabetes medications, painkillers or sedatives.
- Liver disease
- The ratio of number of drinks to time
Your body begins to metabolize alcohol at a rate of 20 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) per hour.3 For example, if your BAC is 40 mg/dL (or .04), it would take two hours to metabolize the alcohol. However, the above factors could cause the metabolism process to take longer.
Generally how long alcohol stays in your body depends on the type of drink. For example, a small shot of liquor takes 1 hour to metabolize while a pint of beer takes up to two hours.
The longer alcohol is in your body, the stronger the effect it has. Let’s discuss the effects of alcohol on your body.
How Alcohol Affects The Body
The occasional glass of wine or cocktail isn’t anything to worry about unless you have a gut infection or are following an elimination diet. If you are following an elimination diet or have Candida overgrowth or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), you want to avoid having a drink altogether.
Remember, alcohol is a toxin that kills cells in your body. What’s more is that alcohol is packed with sugar, and some drinks such as beer, wine, and champagne are fermented as well. Just 1 to 2 drinks per day can lead to SIBO, and make symptoms such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea worse.
Additionally, most beers contain gluten, a protein found in wheat and grains used to make beer. Gluten is a highly inflammatory food and should be removed from everyone’s diet. If you feel like you absolutely have to drink alcohol socially, try a mixed drink with tequila, or a vodka you know was made from potatoes.
Yet, do you know the effects alcohol has on your body? Long-term use of alcohol can cause permanent brain damage, heart disease, liver failure, and inflammation of your pancreas.4 However, even a sip of alcohol can have a short-term effect on your brain function. Let’s look at the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol
The short-term effects of alcohol can be broken down into three areas. A small dose of alcohol (1 to 2 drinks) lowers inhibitions and the ability to concentrate. A medium dose (3 to 4 drinks) causes slurred speech, altered emotions, and poor vision. A higher dose (5 drinks or more) can cause uncontrolled urination, alcohol poisoning, and breathing problems.
Short-term effects of alcohol include:
- Slower reaction time
- Difficulty breathing
- Vomiting and nausea
- Slurred speech
- Passing out
- Alcohol poisoning
The severity of the short-term effects of alcohol depends on how much you’ve had to drink. Moderation is key when enjoying a cocktail this holiday season.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol’s impact on your body begins with the first sip, however long-term use of alcohol can take its toll on your body. A glass of wine a day isn’t going to do serious damage to your health, however, if it becomes a habit and you have a hard time stopping after one glass, the long-term effects begin to add up.
Long-term effects of alcohol include:5
- High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems
- Cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.
- Weakened immune system, which increases the risk of developing an autoimmune disease or getting sick.
- Brain fog and dementia
- Depression and anxiety
- Alcohol dependence
- Sexual dysfunction
- Diabetes complications
The good news is that, in most cases, your body can repair the damage caused by long-term alcohol use.6 Maintaining sobriety for 5 to 7 years is the peak time when your body can reverse damages from alcohol.
I’ve told you about how alcohol is processed in your body, how long it can stay in your system, and the effects it has on your body. Now I’m going to tell you how to get alcohol out of your system and ways you can support your body’s detoxification process.
How to Remove Alcohol from Your System
Unfortunately, there’s nothing that you can do to lower your blood alcohol concentration. However, alcohol is a toxin that needs to be removed from your body. Remember, only 10% of the alcohol you consume is naturally released through sweating, breathing, and urinating. The rest is up to your liver. Here are three ways you can support your liver’s metabolism of alcohol:
There’s a bit of truth to the phrase, “sleep it off.” Sleep allows your body to rest and recover. Sleeping won’t physically remove alcohol from your system, however, it will give your body time to rest so it can effectively remove alcohol from your system.
2. Drink fluids
This might seem obvious. Alcohol causes dehydration, which is why you get a hangover the next day after a night of drinking. Drinking plenty of water will reduce dehydration and get water back in your system. An electrolyte drink will help your body hold the fluids and rehydrate faster.
3. Eat some food
This also may seem obvious. Remember that alcohol is absorbed the quickest in your small intestine. Having food in your stomach can slow down the absorption of alcohol while you’re drinking. Eating after drinking can slow down absorption. What’s more, eating increases your blood glucose levels. In most cases, deliberately increasing your blood glucose levels isn’t a good idea. However, the toxins in alcohol actually lower the amount of glucose in your bloodstream, which can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
4. Activated Charcoal
Activated Charcoal acts as an incredibly effective binder and chelator. It has an extremely large surface area that traps toxins, gas, and chemicals within its millions of tiny pores. Then it binds with them so they can be safely and quickly transported out of your body.7
Whether you’ve eaten or drank something that expired a little too long ago, or had one too many alcoholic drinks at a holiday party, Activated Charcoal can help to “mop up” the toxic aftermath. My coconut charcoal can also help to bind to potentially irritating proteins, such as casein and gluten.
Activated Charcoal is actually quite incredible, and is used in emergency rooms around the world to support detoxification after the ingestion of chemical or environmental poisons.
Enjoying the holidays doesn’t have to derail your health. An indulgence every now and then isn’t the end of the world. If you do indulge over the holiday season, understanding how your body processes alcohol and how you can support it is the key to having a healthy holiday season.
- Liver and alcohol breakdown. MyDr. 2016.
- What Happens When You Drink on an Empty Stomach?. Erica Cirino. Healthline. 2019.
- Alcohol's Effects on the Body. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2021.
- Alcohol's Effects on the Body. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2021.
- Alcohol Use and Your Health. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021.
- Alcohol Addiction: Can You Reverse the Effects of Alcohol? . Ardu Recovery Center. 2021.
- Activated Charcoal. WebMD. 2020.