Understand How the Body Processes Alcohol – Reduce Secondhand Drinking

Understand how the body processes alcohol and reduce secondhand drinking – where’s the connection between these two concepts?

Secondhand drinking is a term to describe the impacts another person experiences as a result of trying to cope with a person’s drinking behaviors. These are the behaviors a person engages in as a result of drinking alcohol in quantities that exceed what the body and brain can handle. These behaviors include the insane, circular arguments; verbal/physical or emotional abuse; physical assault; unwanted sex; the behaviors that occur in a blackout; the accident caused when driving while impaired.

In order to protect oneself from secondhand drinking or to avoid causing secondhand drinking, it can be helpful to understand how the body processes alcohol.

How the Body Processes Alcohol Can Contribute to Secondhand Drinking

Alcohol is not digested like other foods and liquids through the digestive system. Instead, alcohol passes through to the small intestine and 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 high in water concentration (like the brain) and highly vascularized (meaning, lots of blood vessels – like the brain).

How the body processes alcohol - understand it and avoid causing or being the victim of secondhand drinking.

How the body processes alcohol – understand it and avoid causing or being the victim of secondhand drinking.

Alcoholic beverages contain ethyl alcohol – a chemical – and it is that chemical that interrupts normal brain functioning by interferring with the brain’s cell-to-cell eletro-chemical signaling process (aka neural networks). This ethycl alcohol chemical is metabolized by the liver, thanks in large part to enzymes produced in the liver. This is the process by which ethyl alcohol chemicals leave the body. The liver can only metabolize a certain amount per hour, which means alcohol leaves the bloodstream more slowly than it enters. [This is why a person’s BAC can continue to rise after they have stopped drinking.] Because the brain controls everything we think, feel, say and do, the ethyl alcohol chemicals “sitting” in the brain until the liver can metabolize them is what changes a person’s brain’s cell-to-cell communications, which in turn changes their “thinking” and therefore their behaviors.

As a very GENERAL rule of thumb, it takes about one hour for the liver to metabolize the ethyl alcohol chemicals in one standard drink. A standard drink is defined as 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. Using this very GENERAL rule of thumb, it will take four hours to metabolize four drinks — even if the drinks were consumed back-to-back in a short period of time. [To learn more about how much alcohol is in typical drinks served at restaurants and bars, check out NIAAA’s Cocktail Content Calculator. NIAAA’s Drink Size Calculator can also be of help.]

BUT, no two people will necessarily metabolize alcohol in the same manner. People who weigh less, for example, have less body water as compared to someone who weighs more, and thus drink for drink a person who weighs less will have more alcohol concentration in their body water than someone who weighs more. People who have lower amounts of the liver enzymes that metabolize ethyl alcohol will take longer to metabolize the same amount as someone else. Stage of brain development also has an influence. [See related post for more on this concept, “How Teens Become Alcoholics Before Age 21.”] There are other factors (whether a person is taking medications, lack of sleep, existence of a mental illness, as examples) that can also influence how much is “too much” for one person as compared to another.

Bottom Line

The key message is speicific enzymes in the liver are responsible for metabolizing (getting rid of) the ethyl alcohol chemical in alcoholic beverages. It does this at an AVERAGE rate of one standard drink per hour. Until the ethcyl alcohol chemicals are metabolized, a person still has them in their bloodstream, which means their brain is still being impacted by the chemical changes caused by the ethyl alcohol chemicals’ interruption of normal neural network function – hence their decision-making capabilities are being impacted, as well. In this manner, a person who’s had too much to drink may actually “choose” to drink and drive or to keep drinking because “they feel fine” or to engage in any number of other destructive behaviors because of the convoluted “thinking” caused by the ethyla alcohol chemical’s impact on their brain functioning.

© 2013 Lisa Frederiksen, Rev. 2015



Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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22 Responses to Understand How the Body Processes Alcohol – Reduce Secondhand Drinking

  1. It is so true that we need to understand how what we eat and drink does to our bodies. thx for the info.

  2. Very informative article, Lisa. There is a definite and clear connection between how the body processes alcohol and second-hand drinking. Decisions can be impaired far beyond the time of taking a drink, for sure. Thanks so much!

    • I really appreciate your comment, Lisa, and glad to hear you found the connection to secondhand drinking helpful. Hopefully it will be a concept that can change how we view drinking behaviors in much the same way we changed how we viewed the health impacts on others of secondhand smoke.

  3. Anita says:

    I like how you broke this article down to include the impact on decision making and how alcohol effects the brain. Great read!

  4. Sherie says:

    Such an informative post on how the body processes alcohol! Thanks for sharing, Lisa!

  5. Very informative article. I never actually heard the term “Secondhand drinking” – but I think it is a good one. I wonder how many people have no idea when they have crossed that line where their decision making processes are impaired and just keep drinking because they “feel fine.”

    • Thank you, Susan. Sadly, it’s stunning how many people don’t understand when they’ve crossed the line. This is generally because by the time they “feel” it, there is so much alcohol backed up waiting to be metabolized by the liver that rationale thinking is no longer possible. I created this video to help people understand, for example, why a person “chooses” to drink and drive – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLto4YUsfHs Glad you found the term, secondhand drinking, helpful. Hopefully, it will change how we view drinking behaviors in much the same way we changed how we viewed the health impacts on others of secondhand smoke.

  6. Great information Lisa. “BUT, no two people will necessarily metabolize alcohol in the same manner.” is so important to note as we are all different and need to be aware of what our body can tolerate. One hour for one standard drink is a good rule of thumb to remember. Thanks for sharing – always helpful. Like your new website!!

    • Thank you, Cathy – and you’re right – it’s so important to keep in mind that no two people will metabolize alcohol in the same manner. This is especially important as people often think they can maintain drink-for-drink with a friend’s drinking pattern and feel as if they’ve “failed” when they can’t. Another thing to understand is that regardless of outward appearances, the impact of more alcohol than the body can process on the brain is still happening.

  7. Thanks for such an informative post Lisa – this was a great read! I was intrigued to learn about the idea of the second-hand drinking… it makes a lot of sense. Of course – the best way to good health practice is awareness your article has a lot of great education to help.

    • I’m so glad you found it helpful, Moira. I agree – as new research becomes available on whatever topic is of interest – it can really re-frame conversations and hopefully lead to positive change.

  8. Great article…every thing we eat and drink has a profound impact on our bodies, our health. Doing so mindfully is critical!

  9. Solvita says:

    Great information here, Lisa. You are doing such a great job, people must be aware of consequences so they can make wise decisions. Thanks a lot for sharing. 🙂

  10. Lisa,
    You have so much knowledge and wisdom to share with us on this topic. I always enjoy reading your posts!

  11. Sharon O'Day says:

    Understanding how alcohol reacts within the body is so critical to understanding the person who is (ab)using it. Thank you for this valuable information, Lisa!

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