True or false? Throwing up, drinking coffee, taking a cold shower or walking around the block will sober you up. As with other myths about drinking, the answer is FALSE.
Why the Myths About Drinking – Throwing up, Drinking Coffee, Taking a Cold Shower or Walking Around the Block – Do Not Sober You Up
Why? Because alcohol is not processed like other foods and liquids. It bypasses the digestive system and exits the body through the liver.
Thus, throwing up does not get rid of the alcohol… neither does a walk, drinking coffee, exercising or taking a cold shower. The only thing that can sober a person up is time. As a very GENERAL rule of thumb, it takes the liver about ONE hour to metabolize ONE standard drink. Using this general rule of thumb, it will take three hours to metabolize three standard drinks — even if the drinks were consumed back-to-back, and it’s been over an hour since the last drink. And, here is why.
Alcohol enters the bloodstream through the walls of the small intestine. Because alcohol dissolves in water, the bloodstream carries it throughout the body (which is 60-70% water) where it is absorbed into body tissue in proportion to the body tissue’s water content.
Contrary to popular belief, we cannot rid our bodies of the alcohol we drink by peeing or sweating or vomiting it out. It’s our liver that rids our bodies of the alcohol we consume.
Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, thanks in large part to enzymes produced only in the liver (ADH and ALDH). The liver can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol per hour, which means alcohol leaves the bloodstream more slowly than it enters. This is why a person’s BAC (blood alcohol content) can continue to rise long after they have stopped drinking or passed out.
So what’s the big deal? The brain is mostly water and highly vascularized (lots of blood vessels). When a person drinks more alcohol than their liver can metabolize, the excess alcohol stays in his/her bloodstream and suppresses certain brain functions – especially those related to judgment, decision making, learning, memory and pleasure. In other words, the very areas of the brain a person needs in order to think straight, behave normally and act responsibly. For this reason, a person who drinks too much can find him/herself engaging in what are known as drinking behaviors. These include:
• Fighting with friends or family about the drinking or the dumb, stupid, mean, nasty things you’ve said while under the influence.
• Doing things you don’t remember or regret.
• Binge drinking (defined as drinking 4 or more standard drinks on an occasion for women; 5 or more for men).
• Experiencing blackouts – fragmentary or complete; vomiting; passing out.
• Driving while under the influence; getting a DUI; thinking it’s safe to ride in a car driven by someone who has been drinking.
• Having unplanned, unwanted or unprotected sex; committing date rape.
• Being admitted to the emergency room with a high BAC, in addition to the “real” reason (e.g., a broken arm, broken nose or auto accident).
• Doing poorly at work or school because of the drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking.
Even if a person appears as if s/he can “hold their liquor,” the impact is still happening. (See “too much to drink is relative,” under Myth #4.) It still takes their liver about one hour to metabolize one drink; 8 hours to metabolize 8 drinks.
And, speaking of “a” drink…
…the size of a drink matters. In the image below, you will see what “a” standard drink of various alcoholic beverages looks like.
From L to R: 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of bourbon (80 proof), 1.5 ounce shot of vodka, 1.5 ounces of vodka on the rocks, 3.3 ounces of champagne and 12 ounces of regular beer. Though the volume in each glass varies considerably, the amount of alcohol in each glass is the same.
This means a person can easily drink more than they’d planned to drink – especially when drinking at a restaurant, bar or friend’s party. Why? Because common drinks (or the way one place pours a drink as compared to another) often contain more than one standard drink. For example, a margarita may contain 2-3 standard drinks, and a good, stiff bourbon straight up could put a woman into the binge drinking category. The same is true of drink containers. Take the alcoholic energy drink, Four Loko, for example. The 23.5 ounce container has about 5 standard drinks.
Worried About a Drinking Pattern?
Whether you are concerned about your own drinking pattern or someone else’s, check out NIAAA’s online, anonymous, two-question quiz at NIAAA’s website, Rethinking Drinking > How Much is Too Much? There you can also learn more about standard drinks in common cocktails and drink containers, as well as tips for cutting down.