The Effects of Alcohol

What happens to alcohol in your body?

The alcohol in your drink is absorbed into your body through the stomach and small intestines. Food slows down the rate of absorption – that’s why alcohol affects you more quickly when taken on an empty stomach.

Alcohol travels through the intestines to the liver and then on to your heart, brain, muscles and other tissues. This happens very quickly – within a few minutes.  Usually, though not always, this has a pleasant effect.

Your body can’t store alcohol, so it breaks it down – your liver’s job. The liver firstly changes alcohol into acetaldehyde (this is toxic), then into acetate (harmless), which is then broken down into carbon dioxide and water. About 90% – 95% of alcohol consumed is broken down by the liver, 5% – 10% is excreted through urine, breath and sweat.

Your body’s ability to process alcohol depends on your age, weight and sex. Your body breaks down alcohol at a rate of roughly one drink per hour – and there’s no way you can speed this up.


Myth Busters

We tell you whether some commonly held beliefs are true or false?

Drinking on a full stomach means I will get less drunk

False. Eating before or while drinking is a good idea however. Food slows down the rate at which the bloodstream absorbs alcohol, giving your body more time to remove it and increases the breakdown of alcohol in the stomach (first pass metabolism).

The best advice is to eat before or while drinking, and to pace yourself with soft drinks or water and to limit your consumption to daily responsible drinking guidelines.


Alcohol is not fattening

False. Dry wines, ciders, pure spirits and beers are fat free and almost sugar free, but contain calories.

A standard ½ litre of beer has approximately 130 calories, as does a 150ml glass of dry wine, less than a serving of apple juice.

It is important to include drinking alcohol only as part of a balanced diet and lifestyle, that is plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and exercise of course. .

If you’re watching your weight, remember all alcoholic drinks contain calories. They can also make you feel hungry. Drinking alcohol stimulates your appetite while reducing your self-control, so you’re more likely to binge eat if you binge drink. Choose a diet mixer for spirits and watch out for cocktails if you’re watching your weight. Fortified or dessert wines and liqueurs are much more calorific and sugar rich per serving, too.

For regular and heavy alcohol drinkers, up to 50% of calories consumed each day may be from alcohol, as alcohol is often drunk in preference to eating meals. Leading to long term health risks.

The calories contained in alcoholic beverages mainly come from ethanol (alcohol).  There are 7 calories in 1g of ethanol.

We remind you that women should not exceed 2 drinks per day (20g of ethanol), and men 3 drinks per day (30g of ethanol) whichever drink you choose. Here is an indication of how many calories there are in the main drinks:

Calories for drinks containing about 10g of ethanol 

Spirits: 30ml at 40% vol. +/- 68 Kcal (variation between dark & white spirits)

Wine: 100ml at 12% vol. +/- 74 Kcal (variation between dry & sweet wine)

Champagne: 100ml at 12% vol. +/-74 Kcal (variation between brut and semi-brut)

Beer: 250ml at 5% vol. +/- 106 Kcal (variation between types of beer e.g. lager, ale, stout)

However, alcohol beverages are served and sold across Europe in measures frequently other than 10g of ethanol in a drink.  In addition, some spirits drinks (such as liqueurs) have by definition a certain quantity of sugar.  Similarly, the soft drinks and ingredients you choose to add will impact the total calorie intake.

A glass of spirits drink is never consumed by 100ml!  This would exceed the low-risk drinking guidelines and therefore 100ml cannot be considered as a unit of reference to inform consumers on calories for spirits.


Alcohol affects everyone in the same way

False. Your size, weight, metabolism, sex as well as how and when you drink will all alter how alcohol affects you.

Drinking on an empty stomach or drinking fast, results in higher blood alcohol levels and these will also be affected by your size weight, health and age. Being very tired, ill or stressed may affect a person’s reaction to alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant and places stress on the body systems which may result in you being affected more by alcohol when tired or run down.


Drinking coffee or having a shower will sober me up and stop me getting a hangover

False. Nothing can speed up the breakdown of alcohol in your blood stream except time and plenty of water. Even one or two drinks will affect your coordination, judgement and reaction, so plan how you’re getting home before you go out or nominate a designated driver. Never be tempted to drink and drive  you risk losing your licence, job – and worse.

A hangover can’t be cured, although some people believe a strong coffee, a cold shower or fizzy drinks can help. In fact, time is the only cure, allowing the liver to get on with its job in eliminating the alcohol from your system, helped along by drinking lots of water.

Symptoms of a hangover include feeling thirsty, sick, tired and headachey, and being more sensitive to noise and bright lights. These effects are caused by alcohol acting as a ‘diuretic’. This means that alcohol makes the body lose too much water, causing dehydration. Alcohol also irritates the lining of the stomach, leading to indigestion, nausea and dehydration.


The Mediterranean diet is about losing weight

False. The Mediterranean diet is not about losing weight, but about eating a diet low in red meats, high in vegetables, pulses, pasta and fruit, combined with fish, olive oil and alcohol, in moderation.

Studies have shown that a , ‘Mediterranean’  type diet, leads to greater longevity and a significant reduction in heart disease, late on set diabetes and stroke.

Apply the “Five a day” recommendation: By following the “five heart” healthy lifestyle factors of staying slim, not smoking, exercising gently daily and eating a balanced diet high in fibre, fruit and vegetables and low in saturated fats and drinking between 1 and 2 and two drinks a day, you more than halve your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.


What if ….

I choose not to drink?

If you choose not to drink alcohol, people should support you in this, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to drink.

There are many good health, family and social reasons why you may decide not to drink. These include personal, cultural and religious considerations.

The potential protection that alcohol provides against heart disease and other diseases is only significant for people aged from about 40 and over, as that’s when these diseases are more common. A healthy diet, staying slim, regular exercise and not smoking will provide similar health benefits.


I have asthma?

If asthma is triggered by sulphur compounds, such as sulphur dioxide (SO2), then fermented beverages should not be consumed as SO2 is used as a preservative and is a natural byproduct of fermentation. If the asthma is not triggered by sulphur compounds, then alcoholic drinks are unlikely to trigger an asthma attack.


I have diabetes?

People with diabetes can consume alcohol, but preferably with a meal. The consumption of alcohol without food can cause blood sugar level to fall unexpectedly (hypoglycemia), in particular, if on insulin.

If more than a light to moderate amount of alcohol is drunk, alcohol can react with many of the prescribed diabetic medications and worsen the side effects of diabetes such as increased blood pressure.

Recommendations are a maximum of two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.

Low sugar or ‘dry’ varieties of wine are recommended for diabetics. These include still and sparkling styles and also dry sherry, but not a sweet or medium dry/sweet sherry or sweet dessert wines. Beers and spirits (avoid sweet mixers) are fine but high sugar liqueurs and fortified wines should also be avoided.

If your diabetes is well controlled drinking moderately probably won’t affect short-term blood glucose control. However, drinking above the recommended guidelines can result in serious hypoglycaemia, particularly if you are taking insulin or sulphonylurea tablets or if you haven’t eaten enough carbohydrate.

Delayed hypoglycaemia may occur up to 16 hours after heavy drinking. So if you overdo it, keep your blood glucose levels topped up with carbohydrate. After drinking, make sure you have carbohydrate before you go to bed and at breakfast, and monitor your blood glucose levels closely.

If you have diabetes, follow these useful tips when you drink

If you drink alcohol, make sure it’s always shortly before, during or after a meal

  • Never drink on an empty stomach. The alcohol will be absorbed into your blood stream too quickly Choose ‘dry’ drinks, such as dry wine and beer and avoid mixing spirits with juice mixers – choose a slimline tonic or low sugar alternative. Avoid dessert wines, port or sweet sherries for example
  • Do not substitute alcoholic drinks for your usual meal or snacks. It could lead to hypoglycaemia
  • If you’re watching your weight, remember all alcoholic drinks contain calories. They can also make you feel hungry
  • You may be less aware of the symptoms of hypoglycaemia when you are drinking, so always wear some form of diabetes identification.

For more information on alcohol and diabetes, talk to your Dietician, Diabetes Specialist Nurse, or GP