How Alcohol Affects Your Body

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If you’ve ever been to a college party or a night out, you’ve probably experienced a hangover. Though unpleasant, this is a common experience the morning after having one too many. Why does a fun night out often result in a morning-after headache? Alcohol negatively affects the body in many ways. Hangovers begin to give you an idea of the impacts of alcohol, but the effects of drinking frequently and/or heavily can be much more severe than an unpleasant morning.  The more you drink, the greater the effect.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism, in the United States, a “standard” alcoholic drink contains approximately 14 grams of pure alcohol.

One drink can be generally defined as:

  • 12 ounces of 5% alcohol beer
  • 5 ounces of 12% alcohol wine
  • 1.5-ounces of spirits, at approximately 40% alcohol
  • 8 ounces of 7% percent alcohol malt liquor

Number of Drinks BAC Effect
1 – 2 Up to .05 Relaxed feeling, lowered inhibitions. Reaction time is slowed and alertness reduced.
3 – 4 .05 to .10 Judgement, reaction times, and fine motor skills are reduced.
5 – 7 .10 – .15 Multiple effects, including vision, perception, and reactions times. You may become emotional or argumentative.
8 – 10 .15 – .30 Visible effects, such as staggering, slurring words, and trouble seeing. You may vomit or feel nauseated.
Over 10 .30 and above You may “pass-out” or lose consciousness. Staying conscious and losing memory (black out) can occur and your breathing rate will slow.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?

When you think about the effects of alcoholism, you may first think about job loss, fits of rage and other relationship problems. However, alcohol also harms your body. Luckily, aspects of recovery from alcohol addiction, including prolonged abstinence, can start to reverse some of these effects, including:


Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes you urinate frequently. If you aren’t drinking enough water, your body can’t replenish the fluids it loses through urination. This may not seem like a significant problem for one night, but if you drink frequently over the course of weeks or months, your body will become severely dehydrated, which leads to dizziness, fatigue and potential heart problems.

Liver problems

The liver is responsible for breaking down and metabolizing alcohol. Over time, drinking too much can wear out and weaken the liver. Drinking also makes the liver fatty, which can make it more difficult for it to function or cause it to stop functioning completely.  In 2017, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis were the 11th leading cause of death in the United States.

Kidney Function

Your kidneys act as a filter for substances in the body.  As you drink more and more frequently, alcohol makes your kidneys slow down and become less able to do their job in filtering harmful substances.  Since alcohol is a diuretic, your cells can become drier and that impacts normal functions.  People who develop fatty liver are also at an increased risk of developing chronic kidney disease.· Impaired memory. You probably know that drinking too much at once can make you black out, but over long periods of time, heavy drinking can begin to reduce brain mass in the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is responsible for your working memory, so reduced mass in this area can lead to permanent memory problems and may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Cardiovascular problems

Alcohol can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, which can contribute to heart attack, stroke or arrhythmia.

Loss of energy

Alcohol can make you fall asleep more quickly, but it also disrupts your natural sleep rhythms, which can make you more tired.


Alcohol produces feelings of pleasure and relaxation by altering the nervous system. Since the body likes to stay in the state which it is the most used to, it begins to crave this depression of the nervous system. Therefore, if you are used to drinking frequently and decide to stop, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, anxiety, nausea, sweating, irritability, increased heart rate or seizures.  These symptoms can be deadly, so you should withdraw from alcohol under the care of medical professionals.

More health risks include, pancreatitis, cancer, ulcers and gastrointestinal problems, immune system dysfunction, brain damage (wet brain), malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies, osteoporosis, heart disease.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your Body?

Alcohol can stay in your body far longer than it takes for the effects to wear off. Whether or not you are feeling high or relaxed, your body is still experiencing the negative impacts. It’s important to keep track of how much you are drinking, as the way you are feeling is not necessarily a good indicator of how much you have drunk. The best indicator is your blood-alcohol content (BAC), which is a measure of how much alcohol is in your blood relative to the volume. You are considered legally drunk if your BAC is 0.08 or higher.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

The answer is not clear-cut. In general, your BAC will go down at a rate of approximately 0.015 per hour. Your highest BAC level depends on many factors, such as:

  • Body mass: the more you weigh, the more alcohol you will have to consume to reach the same BAC as a smaller person.
  • Body fat percentage: if you have a higher body fat percentage, you will probably get drunk more quickly.
  • How much you drank: the more drinks you consume, the higher your BAC will be.
  • How long you were drinking: BAC decreases with time. If you consume several drinks within a short period of time, your blood alcohol levels will increase much more quickly.
  • Gender: women often get drunk more quickly than men. This is partially a result of the fact that they tend to be smaller and have higher body fat percentages.
  • Genetics: some people have a naturally higher tolerance than others.
  • Metabolism: if you have a higher metabolism, you will also metabolize alcohol more quickly.
  • Food intake: food slows the absorption of alcohol, so if you eat just before or during alcohol consumption, you will absorb the alcohol more slowly.
  • Age: your ability to “hold your liquor” decreases as you age.
  • Drugs/prescriptions: other drugs and prescription medications can make you feel the effects of alcohol more quickly and/or have harmful interactions with alcohol.

The higher your blood alcohol content is, the more likely you are to experience negative effects. Unfortunately, if you drink frequently, you will develop a higher tolerance. This means that you will need more alcohol to experience the same effects. An increased tolerance could be a signal that you are developing alcohol dependence, so it may be time to seek help if you find yourself drinking more and more before you start to feel a buzz.

Does Alcohol Show Up on a Drug Test?

Whether or not you’re acting intoxicated, a breathalyzer or drug test will show that you have been drinking if there is still alcohol in your system. Since alcohol stays in your blood, urine and breath, a drug test administered through a blood sample or urine sample will register that you have been drinking, which could cause legal or professional problems. You may be wondering how to get alcohol out of your system quickly to pass a drug test, but the only way to eliminate alcohol from your system is time. How long does alcohol stay in your blood? Between 12-24 hours.

Test Type How long is alcohol detectable?
Blood 6 – 12 hours after last drink
Saliva 12 – 24 hours
Breath 24 hours
Urine 12 – 120 hours (depending on test type)
Hair 90 days
Sweat A patch will provide continuous monitoring for alcohol use over a period such as 7 days. Any alcohol consumed will be detected.

Alcohol use can have serious impacts on your legal and professional life. If you find that you are frequently nervous about being sober enough to pass a breathalyzer or drug test, it may be a sign that you are developing alcohol dependence, and you should find an alcohol rehab center to avoid serious consequences.

Seeking Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Over time, the physical effects of alcohol abuse can become increasingly severe. Since alcohol remains in your body long after you stop feeling the effects, you are more at risk of experiencing negative consequences the longer you try to preserve the high. If you struggle with a substance use disorder, you may try to prolong the effects of intoxication for as long as possible, which can take a serious toll both on your body and on your professional life. Luckily, substance abuse treatment centers can help with alcohol abuse and prevent your alcohol use from negatively impacting your life. If you have already started to experience consequences, abstinence and recovery can help you begin to reverse the effects on your body. No matter where your substance abuse has led you, it’s never too late to seek help. You can work toward a healthy body and a life of recovery.

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