How long does it take for the body to absorb alcohol?

A woman went out with friends one evening, returning home at 2 a.m. after having six drinks. According to ABC News, the woman slept for six hours, woke up and started her drive into work. She was pulled over by a law enforcement officer who said he could smell alcohol on her breath. The woman then failed a breath test and was arrested on drunken driving charges.

As any Minneapolis DWI lawyer would know, a morning-after drunk driving arrest can happen to anyone who is not familiar with how long it can take for the body to absorb and process alcohol. While the metabolic rate is roughly always the same, the absorption rate can greatly vary.

The process

Alcohol that is consumed will pass from the stomach and intestines into the body’s blood, also known as the absorption process. Enzymes then attack the alcohol in order to break it down, which is the metabolism process. Most alcohol will be metabolized in the liver, though some will escape the process and be detectable in urine or breath. Until the substance has been completely absorbed and metabolized, alcohol will be distributed throughout the body and affect the person consuming it. Therefore, a slower absorption rate means a higher tolerance, because less alcohol is making it into the consumer’s blood.

General metabolic and absorption rates

A report from the Sociology Department at the State University of New York notes that the body metabolizes alcohol at a rate of 0.015 ounces an hour, which is a rate that does not fluctuate much. However, the rate of absorption – or how quickly someone will feel the effects of alcohol – can vary based on a number of factors, including the following:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Food consumption
  • Body weight

The liver only digests one standard alcoholic beverage every hour, and alcohol is metabolized slower than it is absorbed. Experts suggest sticking to just one drink an hour, as overloading the liver will cause a higher-than-intended blood alcohol concentration. People who wish to avoid legal troubles should be aware of their risk factors for feeling the effects of alcohol quickly.

The age factor

A key factor in metabolizing alcohol is how old the person is. As the National Institute of Health notes, older people tend to have more trouble breaking down alcohol and can accidentally drink too much. As humans get older, their bodies lose the ability to metabolize alcohol as quickly as they used to. Therefore, the substance remains in the body longer. Additionally, older people tend to have less water in their bodies and higher muscle-to-fat ratios. As any Minneapolis DWI lawyer knows, this can create a higher blood alcohol concentration than a younger person having the same amount of drinks may have.

Adults 65 and older also tend to have more health problems than their younger counterparts. Not only can alcohol exacerbate these issues, but it can also be a potent mix when combined with certain medications. Mixing alcohol and medicine can lead to sleepiness, lack of coordination and confusion, all of which can be deadly should the individual get behind the wheel. Further, anyone taking a prescription or over-the-counter drug should be aware that the medicine can stay in the body for at least a few hours.

Gender breakdown

The University of Minnesota reports that men tend to break down alcohol more effectively than women can. This is largely due to the fact that males have a higher concentration of the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol. Further, women tend to have higher body fat percentages. As alcohol is a water-soluble chemical, people with more fat on their bodies will take longer to process it.

Further studies suggest that a woman’s menstrual cycle can also affect how she absorbs alcohol, as does the use of medications that contain estrogen. Both of these factors can impact the liver’s ability to metabolize alcoholic beverages. The University of Notre Dame reports that a man and woman each weighing 140 pounds could have two drinks over the course of an hour, and the woman’s blood alcohol content would be twice that of the man’s.

Body weight and type

People wondering how long it takes to absorb alcohol should be aware that body weight will play a major role. The less someone weighs, the more likely they will feel the effects of alcohol sooner. That is because alcohol loves water, and bigger people tend to have more water in their bodies.

Further, if two people of the same weight consume alcohol, the one with more muscle will have a slower absorption rate than the one with more fat. Fatty tissues tend to have less water, which means they will not absorb much alcohol.

Food consumption

As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism points out, another key factor that affects alcohol absorption is how much food the person has eaten that day. The rate of alcohol absorption is directly linked to how quickly the stomach can empty its contents, because the small intestine is the most efficient at processing the substance.

Not only is the presence of food important, but so is the actual kind of food that was eaten. People who have a meal that includes fat, protein and carbohydrates, according to the NIAAA, will absorb alcohol three times slower than those who drink on an empty stomach. A study from Intoximeters found that people who have been fasting will feel the peak effects of alcohol as soon as 30 minutes after drinking, while people who have food will not exhibit peak concentrations until at least an hour later.

Anyone who has questions about alcohol absorption and DWI should consult with a Minneapolis DWI lawyer.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

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