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Article Summary

Alcohol: Body Weight and Body Type

In general, the less you weigh the more you will be affected by a given amount of alcohol. As detailed above, alcohol has a high affinity for water. Basically one's blood alcohol concentration is a function of the total amount of alcohol in one's system divided by total body water. So for two individuals with similar body compositions and different weights, the larger individual will achieve lower alcohol concentrations than the smaller one if ingesting the same amount of alcohol.

However, for people of the same weight, a well muscled individual will be less affected than someone with a higher percentage of fat since fatty tissue does not contain very much water and will not absorb very much alcohol.

Rate of Consumption

Blood alcohol concentration depends on the amount of alcohol consumed and the rate at which the user's body metabolizes alcohol. Because the body metabolizes alcohol at a fairly constant rate (somewhat more quickly at higher and lower alcohol concentrations), ingesting alcohol at a rate higher than the rate of elimination results in a cumulative effect and an increasing blood alcohol concentration.

Alcohol Content

It's not how many drinks that you have, but how much alcohol that you consume. As you can see from the chart below some drinks are more potent than others.


Alcohol Content of Some Typical Drinks

Drink Alcohol Content
Manhattan 1.15 oz. (34 ml)
Dry Martini 1.00 oz. (30 ml)
Malt liquor -12 oz. (355 ml) 0.71 oz. (21 ml)
Airline miniature 0.70 oz. (21 ml)
Whiskey Sour/Highball 0.60 oz. (18 ml)
Table Wine - 5 oz. (148 ml) 0.55 oz. (16 ml)
Beer - 12 oz. (355 ml) 0.54 oz. (16 ml)
Reduced Alcohol Beer 0.28 oz. (8 ml)

Mixed drinks are based on typical drink recipes using 80 proof liquor.
The amount of alcohol in actual mixed drinks may vary.


Alcohol Content (in Percent) of Selected Beverages

Beverage Alcohol Content (%)
Beers (lager) 3.2 - 4.0
Ales 4.5
Porter 6.0
Stout 6.0 - 8.0
Malt Liquor 3.2 - 7.0
Sake 14.0 - 16.0
Table wines 7.1 - 14.0
Sparkling wines 8.0 - 14.0
Fortified wines 14.0 - 24.0
Aromatized wines 15.5 - 20.0
Brandies 40.0 - 43.0
Whiskies 40.0 - 75.0
Vodkas 40.0 - 50.0
Gin 40.0 - 48.5
Rum 40.0 - 95.0
Aquavit 35.0 - 45.0
Okolehao 40.0
Tequila 45.0 - 50.5

The concentration of the drinks that one ingest can have a slight effect on the peak alcohol concentration due to the differences in absorption rate of different concentrations of alcohol. Alcohol is most rapidly absorbed when the concentration of the drink is between 10% and 30%. Below 10% the concentration gradient in the gastrointestinal tract is low and slows absorption and the added volumes of liquid involved slow gastric emptying. On the other hand concentrations higher than 30% tend to irritate the mucous membranes of the gastrointestinal tract and the pyloric sphincter, causing increased secretion of mucous and delayed gastric emptying.

Food

Food taken along with alcohol results in a lower, delayed blood alcohol concentration peak (the point of greatest intoxication). There are two major factors involved in this phenomenon.

First, because alcohol is absorbed most efficiently in the small intestine, the ingestion of food can slow down the absorption of alcohol into one's system. The pyloric valve at the bottom of the stomach will close in order to hold food in the stomach for digestion and thus keep the alcohol from reaching the small intestine. While alcohol will be absorbed from the stomach it is a slower and less efficient transition.

Second and equally important is the fact that alcohol elimination rates are inversely proportional to alcohol concentration in the blood. Therefore the suppressed levels of alcohol due to food ingestion cause the body to eliminate the alcohol that is absorbed at a faster rate.

The type of food ingested (carbohydrate, fat, protein) has not been shown to have a measurable influence on this affect but the larger the meal and closer in time between eating and drinking, the greater the diminution of peak alcohol concentration. Studies have shown reductions in peak alcohol concentration (as opposed to those of a fasting individual under otherwise similar circumstances) of 9% to 23%.

Medication

If you are taking any medication, it could increase the effects of alcohol. You should always consult your physician or the medical information that accompanies the medication when drinking alcohol in conjunction with any medication.

Fatigue

Fatigue causes many of the same symptoms that are caused by alcohol intoxication. These and other symptoms will be amplified if alcohol intoxication is concurrent with fatigue.

Tolerance

Tolerance is the diminution of the effectiveness of a drug after a period of prolonged or heavy use of that drug or a related drug (cross-tolerance). There are two types of tolerance at work with alcohol. The first is metabolic tolerance in which the alcohol is metabolized at a higher rate (up to 72% more quickly) in chronic users. Because of the higher metabolic rate for alcohol lower peak blood alcohol concentrations are achieved by chronic alcohol users than the average drinker when the same amount of alcohol is ingested. The second is functional tolerance in which there is an actual change in the organ or system's sensitivity to the drug. Studies have shown that chronic alcohol users can have twice the tolerance for alcohol as an average person. It is important to note however that even in light of these tolerance factors, it has been shown conclusively that even in heavy alcohol users functional impairment is clearly measurable at the blood alcohol concentration levels that are currently used for traffic law enforcement and safety sensitive job performance.

Gender Differences

As outlined above in the section on Body Weight and Body Type different body types coincide with different body water percentages. In general, but by no means in all cases, women tend to have a higher percentage of body fat and thus a lower percentage of body water. Therefore, in general, if a man and a woman of the same weight ingest the same amount of alcohol the woman will tend to achieve a higher alcohol concentration. This, of course, would not be true if the woman was very fit and the man was somewhat obese, but on average, this is the case. Furthermore, total body water tends to decrease with age, so an older person will also be more affected by the same amount of alcohol. According to the table below the differences in alcohol concentration due to average body composition differences based on gender would be between 16% and 10% depending on age.


Average Total Body Water
as a function of Sex and Age

Age Male Female
18 to 40 61% 52%
over 60 51% 46%

Another gender based difference is in the elimination of alcohol. Although not explained, studies appear to show that women eliminate alcohol from their bodies at a rate 10% greater than that of men.

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