Following Alcohol in Your Body From First Drink to Blackout

Natalie Baker
Calendar icon Last Updated: 02/24/2022
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The effects of alcohol in your body are very involved, causing a variety of short-term and long-term adverse effects. Classified as a central nervous system depressant, alcohol slows down brain function and neural activity, as well as a variety of vital body functions.

Let’s take a look at alcohol in your body and follow along as it’s processed, from the first drink you take to dangerous outcomes like blackouts.

How Alcohol is Processed in Your Body

Once we drink alcohol, it travels from the mouth to the stomach, where small blood vessels carry it to the bloodstream. Approximately 20 percent of the alcohol in your body that enters the bloodstream does so through the stomach. The remaining alcohol travels onto the small intestine, where the remaining 80 percent is absorbed.

Once in the blood, the alcohol then flows to the liver to be metabolized, and enzymes are produced to break down the alcohol molecules.

The amount of time it takes to process the alcohol in your body – and the effects you feel from it – depends on a large number of factors. These include age, gender, body weight, food intake, and physical health.

However, as a general rule, most individuals can process one standard drink every hour. That means if you consume more than one drink per hour, your system becomes overloaded, and the additional alcohol will accumulate in the blood and body tissues until it can be metabolized.

Alcohol also reaches the brain, and due to its sedating effects, it slows the transmission of impulses between nerve cells that control a person’s ability to think and move. That’s why people under the influence exhibit slurred speech, impaired judgment, and an inability to react quickly, among other things.

Alcohol Causes Blackouts

As a person drinks, his or her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level increases, which is the amount of alcohol present in the bloodstream. The higher the BAC, the more impaired that person will be by the effects of alcohol.

Higher BAC levels can also lead to blackouts, or gaps in a person’s memory for events that occurred while intoxicated. These gaps form when enough alcohol is consumed to prevent the hippocampus area in the brain from forming new memories.

But even though a person who is blacked out can’t form new memories, he or she is still conscious and may continue to make decisions or hold conversations. However, the decisions made or the conversations held will not be remembered the next day.

Details About Alcohol-Induced Blackouts

There are two types of blackouts, and they are both distinguished by the severity of the memory impairment. A fragmentary blackout is the most common type and is characterized by spotty memories for events. This means the person may not immediately remember what happened, but certain cues can trigger memories to return.

The more severe type of memory loss is known as an “en bloc” or complete blackout. These occur when memory is totally disabled, feeling like entire chunks of time are erased or never even happened. No matter how hard a person tries, they will never be able to recall these periods of time. Thanks to the effects of alcohol on the brain, these memories were never formed in the brain – they simply don’t exist.

There is no specific type of person experts consider “most at risk” for experiencing a blackout, but research indicates memory impairment is more likely to occur when alcohol enters the bloodstream quickly and causes BAC levels to rise rapidly. This could happen if someone drinks on an empty stomach or consumes large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), blackouts tend to occur at BAC levels of .16% and higher, which is why they are commonly tied to binge-drinking.

Warning Signs of a Drinking Problem

Determining if a person has a drinking problem can be difficult, especially since no two people are alike and the effects of alcohol are different for everyone. But there are warning signs to look out for, and these signs could signal that it’s time to seek help.

These red flags include:

  • You have developed health problems associated with your drinking. Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to a variety of health issues, ranging from high blood pressure and stroke to pancreatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Your loved ones have shared their concerns about your drinking.
  • You make excuses for your drinking, in order to relax, deal with stress, or just to feel normal
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms if you haven’t had alcohol; symptoms range from nausea and headaches to cramps and insomnia.
  • Your drinking has caused significant consequences like getting fired from your job, losing your marriage, or even becoming incarcerated for a drinking-related offense.
  • You frequently choose alcohol over other responsibilities and obligations.

It’s Important to Seek Help for Alcohol Use Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorder-5 (DSM-5), a publication of the American Psychiatric Association, has also provided more guidance on this issue. The DSM-5 provides clinicians with a set of 11 questions that can aid them in determining if a person has an alcohol use disorder.

Ultimately, if left untreated, a person’s drinking level and the overall effects of alcohol can spiral out of control quickly.  But recognizing the warnings signs and getting proper treatment as soon as possible can make a significant difference in the recovery process for you or someone you love.

Ready to talk to a treatment specialist? Contact us today at 800-926-9037 (Info iconWho Answers?) to learn about our flexible treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction.