Not every experience with alcohol is the same for everyone. There are different factors that can affect how individuals’ bodies absorb and metabolize alcohol. Given the same exact amount of alcohol, different peoples’ level of intoxication varies according to situational, physiological and biological factors.
Biological sex is one factor that can influence how intoxicated an individual gets. Overall, alcohol is metabolized at a different rate in women than it is in men. The differences in anatomy and body composition contribute to the different alcohol experience. Reputable research and numerous studies have also shown that women have fewer of the enzymes used to metabolize alcohol, alcohol dehydrogenase and acetaldehyde dehydrogenase than men do. In fact, most men have 40% more of these enzymes than women. Many other health conditions can also decrease the human body’s ability to process alcohol and therefore present increased health risks and impact how intoxicated an individual gets.
Another factor that can influence how intoxicated someone gets is body weight. This is why men, more often than not, can handle more alcohol in their system than females, as males tend to weigh more. An individual’s body weight determines the amount of physical space through which alcohol can diffuse in the body. For example, a person who weighs 200 pounds will have a lower blood alcohol concentration than a 160-pound person who drank the same amount. Smaller stature individuals will become impaired faster from consuming alcohol.
Alcohol can be distributed throughout the body via the circulatory system and enters most tissues, except bone and fat, which is adipose tissue. Because of this, body composition is a significant factor in how intoxicated a person can get, because as the percentage of body fat increases, the resulting concentration of alcohol in the lean tissues of the body is proportionally higher. Alcohol is more soluble in water than in fat, and muscle tissue is rich with water. If an individual has more muscle than fat, then their alcohol tolerance should increase.
Interactions With Other Drugs
Of course, when individuals mix recreational drugs with alcohol, the experience they are accustomed to with alcohol will be altered.
Drugs that are used for medical purposes can also have adverse effects when combined with alcohol. Certain medications can also have unpredictable interactions with alcohol. Something as innocent as Tylenol can cause major liver troubles if paired with alcohol. It is essential to ask your pharmacist or research any over-the-counter drugs you’re taking in order to understand the possible interactions before drinking. Unfortunately, in some cases, these interactions can be fatal. If you are unaware of how your medication interacts with alcohol, then it is wise to avoid alcohol while taking these medications.
Some drugs are more specific to this risk because of the specific properties of the drugs. For instance, marijuana can reduce nausea, which can inhibit the human body’s ability to remove harmful toxins by vomiting. Because of this, marijuana has the potential to increase the threshold required to elicit a vomit response.
The reason why over-the-counter drugs like Advil and Tylenol are dangerous when mixed with alcohol is that these drugs are also metabolized by the liver. Advil and Tylenol are not in their active form when taken, but they are then transformed in the liver into the active agent. Drinking alcohol while taking these painkillers creates a “bottleneck” in the liver. The drug is then processed incorrectly and the byproducts kill liver cells. As a result, alcohol is metabolized slower.
It is also important not to mix alcohol with other depressants, which includes some antihistamines, which can make the individual drowsy and at risk for accidents or physical harm. Most importantly, when prescription drugs are combined with alcohol, an individual may experience increased impairment. Such results can include a dangerously reduced heart rate and lowered blood pressure.
Another factor that can influence how intoxicated an individual gets is how much food is in their stomach. This can be very dangerous for those who struggle with eating disorders or those who often forget to eat before a big night of drinking. Drinking on an empty stomach compared to eating before or during drinking causes significant differences in the effect of alcohol on the human body. The scientific explanation for this difference is that drinking on an empty stomach irritates the human digestive system and results in more rapid absorption of alcohol. Eating high-protein foods along with alcohol, as well as before drinking, can help individuals avoid getting too drunk.
The reason why having food in the stomach is important is that substantial stomach contents help slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream and delay impairment. Although debated, the type of food, whether carbohydrate, fat, or protein, has not been shown to have a significant influence on blood alcohol content (BAC). However, it is known that larger meals closer to the time of drinking can lower the peak blood alcohol concentration. Food influences how intoxicated an individual can get because the food could obstruct the alcohol from entering the bloodstream or inhibit the stomach from emptying into the small intestine.
Dehydration is another culprit of how intoxicated an individual gets. The more alcohol individuals have consumed, the more dehydrated they will get.
Alcohol in the bloodstream causes the pituitary gland in the brain to block the creation of vasopressin, a pituitary hormone that acts to promote the retention of water by the kidneys and increase blood pressure. As a result of limited vasopressin, the kidneys send water directly to the bladder rather than reabsorbing filtered water into the bloodstream. This diuretic effect increases as the blood alcohol content increases and can lead to dehydration. Additionally, studies have shown that drinking 250 mL of an alcoholic beverage causes the human body to urinate between 800–1000 mL, resulting in the body releasing more than just liquid being consumed.
Interestingly, carbonation speeds up absorption. Alcohol mixed with carbonated beverages such as soda or tonic water will be absorbed faster into the bloodstream. This applies to champagne and wine coolers as well.
Additionally, since energy drinks are stimulants and alcohol is a depressant, energy drinks mask the effects of alcohol by giving drinkers a sense of energy and a false sense that they are not that intoxicated. Mixing alcohol and energy drinks can even lead to heart failure because they are opposing stressors on the human body’s regulatory systems.
Method of Consumption
The way a person consumes alcohol can influence how intoxicated the person gets. The more alcohol a person drinks within a short period of time, the more they overtax their body’s ability to metabolize the alcohol. This is applicable to what happens when an individual takes shots of hard liquor. It is better to sip and drink more slowly to spread your drinking out over time in order to control how intoxicated you become. The amount of alcohol and speed of consumption matters. Basically, the more alcohol and the shorter the time period, the higher the individual’s Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) will be.
Other Influential Factors
There are also very unique characteristics that can influence how intoxicated you get. First, heritable components of enzyme production can be a determining factor. Typically, individuals of Asian or Native American descent display reduced levels of alcohol dehydrogenase, meaning that alcohol will remain in their blood longer and high concentrations of toxins can build up faster. Secondly, if an individual is sick or just getting over an illness, they will tend to become impaired more quickly. Third, strong emotions such as anger, fear, and loneliness tend to enhance impairment.
Women who take some form of birth control pills or are in their premenstrual time in their cycle may have a higher BAC. Additionally, if an individual is lacking sleep or is tired, then they will become impaired more quickly than if they were well-rested. For example, if an individual gets five or fewer hours of sleep for four nights in a row, two drinks may start to feel like six drinks. Lack of sleep reduces tolerance, so individuals will experience impairment at lower BAC levels than normal.
In short, there are no hard and fast rules for how intoxicated an individual gets. Every individual can experience a combination of influencing factors at once. Therefore, it’s very important to drink responsibly or stay sober since everyone is at risk based on their own unique composition.