Do you know what really affects your blood alcohol level? Or do you rely on popular – and often incorrect – notions?
Drinking alcohol affects many areas of the brain that control perception and reaction. Alcohol consumption can loosen inhibitions, boost confidence, help you to unwind – and it typically feels good. As the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream increases, some portions of the brain are affected sooner than others. One of the first affected areas is the limbic system. Located in the center of the brain, the limbic system contains most of the key structures and neurons associated with reward pathways. Following the introduction of alcohol, this region relays a feeling of euphoria throughout the body.
So now that we know why we do it, what about how we do it? Taking a less scientific approach, most people cling to widespread myths about how alcohol works and how it effects the brain and behavior. For example, many believe that body size, gender, how much food is in your stomach or alcohol type can influence how drunk you get. In fact, all these variables do have some effects, but not to the degree popularly believed.
Physical size has a much lower effect on blood alcohol levels than you might suspect. For example, four drinks over two hours would increase the blood alcohol level of a 160-pound male to about 0.12, compared to roughly 0.09 for a 225-pound male. Both individuals would be over the legal limit in most states. Gender makes some difference in blood alcohol levels but not to a significant degree.
Drinking on a full stomach slows down the absorption of alcohol only slightly compared to drinking on an empty stomach. One hour after having three drinks on a full stomach, the blood alcohol level would only be about 10 percent lower for the same person on an empty stomach.
Next to quantity, how fast you drink is more important than any of these factors. For example, four drinks over two hours will produce a higher blood alcohol level than the same four drinks over four hours. Alcohol levels also depend upon the style of drinking. If you quickly drink a single shot of whiskey at the start of an hour and don’t drink for the rest of that hour, you would reach a higher peak alcohol level than by slowly drinking a single beer for that same length of time. However, at the end of that hour either style of drinking would produce the same blood alcohol levels. Beer, a mixed drink or a glass of wine all contain about 1.25 ounces of alcohol. So no matter which of the three you drink, your blood alcohol level will be virtually the same.
So, next time you hit happy hour, listen to your body instead of those old wives tales and be sure to make responsible choices.