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Alcohol and Health

How Long Does It Take for Alcohol To Kick In?

Published:
June 22, 2024
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19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 22, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 22, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 22, 2024
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Reframe Content Team
June 22, 2024
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19 min read

Factors That Affect the Timing of Alcohol Absorption

  • Alcohol gets into our bloodstream the second it touches our lips — allowing it to instantly affect us instantly. 
  • Although that’s true, different factors may speed up or slow down alcohol’s effects.
  • Reframe can help us better understand how alcohol affects us so we can drink more mindfully!

Have you ever wondered why the mixed drink we had at the party was the start of a very blurry night, while on other nights, two glasses of wine may leave us waiting for the expected buzz? The timing of alcohol absorption and the many factors that influence it may be to blame. 

Whether we’re enjoying a quiet night in or toasting to a special occasion, understanding how quickly alcohol affects our body is crucial for learning to drink more mindfully. From the moment alcohol touches our lips to the first signs of a buzz, we’ll uncover the factors that influence the timing of alcohol’s effects. So, the next time we raise a glass, we’ll have a clearer picture of what to expect.

Basics of Alcohol Absorption

Person holding a glass of whiskey with ice cubes

Unlike food, which is digested, alcohol is absorbed into the body. Alcohol is a small, water-soluble molecule, which means that it travels through our bloodstream and affects our cells and organs quickly. The digestive process takes about 24 to 72 hours, but alcohol’s intoxicating effects kick in within minutes of drinking.

When we drink, alcohol starts getting absorbed the moment it touches our lips and the lining of our mouth. When it gets to our stomach, about 20% is absorbed through the gut lining while the rest travels to the small intestine. Our small intestine, which has a surface area about the size of a tennis court, absorbs the majority of the alcohol we consume. Here it travels through our portal vein to the liver, which helps break down the toxins in alcohol so they can be eliminated. 

Before metabolization and elimination can happen, alcohol travels from our bloodstream to our brain, affecting all areas of our body. Specifically, alcohol targets our central nervous system (CNS), which controls messaging within our brain and from our brain to the rest of our body. Alcohol’s damper on the CNS causes the intoxicating effects. Now that we’re aware of how alcohol passes through our body, let’s identify factors that can impact absorption.

Factors That Influence the Onset of Alcohol’s Effects

Have you ever been advised to eat a hearty meal before drinking? This suggestion has some scientific basis because the food can impact alcohol absorption. Many other factors influence absorption and the timeline of alcohol’s effects.

  • Innate influences. Biological factors such as body weight and composition affect our blood alcohol content (BAC), which impacts alcohol’s effects. Since females are generally smaller, the alcohol they consume will be less diluted, causing a higher BAC and impacting how quickly and strongly they feel the effects of alcohol. 
  • Consumption catalysts. The type of alcohol, how much we drink, and how quickly we drink also impacts alcohol’s effects. Alcoholic beverages with a higher alcohol concentration, such as spirits in comparison to beer and wine, elevate our BAC — leading to faster and greater effects. Additionally, drinks with carbonation are absorbed more quickly because they increase the pressure inside our stomach and small intestine. How quickly we drink also plays a role, as our liver can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol at a given time. When we drink more than this, alcohol builds up, increasing our BAC and the effects of alcohol. 
  • Biological basics. Since alcohol travels through different parts of our body, physiological factors such as our hydration levels can impact absorption. Proper hydration helps our cells and organs function properly, maximizing metabolization. In addition, research shows that food can slow down absorption in the stomach and delay alcohol’s effects.
  • Fitness factors. Our overall health can affect our liver function and enzyme activity, which are crucial in alcohol metabolization. Those of us in poor overall health or with preexisting conditions may not process alcohol as efficiently. This can slow down metabolization, which leads to prolonged, elevated levels of alcohol in our system.
  • Situational stimuli. Have you ever had the same drink while relaxing at home and out with friends but experienced completely different effects? Our environment and expectations can alter the way alcohol affects us. For example, beer is commonly associated with being confident and loud. But when we drink wine, which has alcohol content similar to beer, we might become “wine drunk,” feeling poised and relaxed.

When we take all these factors into account, we can see how

timelines of alcohol’s effects can vary significantly from person to person, place to place, and drink to drink. However, there’s more to learn about the timeline of alcohol absorption to get a clearer picture of what to expect.

How Long Does Liquor Take To Kick In?

Since a small portion of alcohol enters our bloodstream as soon as we drink, alcohol has immediate effects. And yet the immediate effects aren’t always noticeable since a majority of alcohol gets absorbed through our stomach and small intestine.  

As more and more alcohol is absorbed by our small intestine, we might begin to feel the short-term effects of alcohol. This happens around 10 to 30 minutes after drinking alcohol. The initial effects are usually cognitive as messaging within our brain may occur faster than in the rest of our body. Some common effects we may feel include relaxation, euphoria, and ease of social interaction. 

Once alcohol gets absorbed, it travels to our brain and the rest of our body. At this stage, we may feel the peak effects of alcohol, as our blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is at its highest. The peak effects of alcohol typically occur about 30 to 90 minutes after drinking. That’s when we’ll likely feel the full effects of alcohol, including symptoms such as impaired judgment, lowered inhibitions, decreased coordination, and blurry vision.  

As soon as the alcohol reaches our liver, it starts to break down through a process called metabolization. The average rate of alcohol metabolization is one standard drink per hour, but as with absorption, metabolization can be impacted by other factors. As alcohol gets metabolized, our BAC lowers — decreasing alcohol’s effects. However, metabolization takes a while so we may feel the long-term effects of alcohol hours after peak absorption. Alcohol lingers in our body and causes hangover symptoms such as headaches, dehydration, fatigue, nausea, low mood, and many more.

So, how can we measure the effects of alcohol to determine how long it takes for us to start feeling the effects of alcohol?

How Are the Effects of Alcohol Measured?

Since the effects of alcohol can vary from person to person, an exact measure is difficult to obtain. The main method by which effects of alcohol can be measured is through blood alcohol concentration (BAC). BAC refers to the amount of alcohol that can be detected in our blood. While we may experience different effects, BAC can give us a general idea of how affected we may be. 

BAC can be measured mainly through our breath, blood, and urine. Breathalyzers are the most immediate test, commonly used by law enforcement officers when they suspect a driver may be driving under the influence. BAC won’t determine the exact effects, but it’s the most objective method of measuring alcohol’s impact. 

A more subjective measure includes self-reported feelings and experiences. There’s a long list of alcohol’s effects that may vary depending on the individual. By paying attention to our feelings and experiences, we’ll be better able to identify alcohol’s effects and how long they take to kick in. Other subjective measures include behavioral observations and impairment tests, such as walking in a straight line, tracking an object with our eyes, and our reaction time. Since alcohol can affect us differently, these tests may not always be accurate measures. So, what considerations should we keep in mind?

Individual Variations in Alcohol Absorption

We’ve determined that the onset of alcohol’s effects can be impacted by many common factors, but individual differences also impact alcohol absorption. 

  • Genetic differences. Two main enzymes in our body help break down alcohol — alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Variations in the genes that produce these enzymes affect how quickly alcohol is absorbed and broken down in our body.
  • Tolerance levels. Increased alcohol tolerance means that we may need more alcohol to reach a certain level. While increased tolerance decreases the intensity of effects, it can indirectly impact the onset of alcohol misuse. For example, if we drink expecting certain effects, we may unconsciously keep drinking to reach that desired effect. Drinking too much in a short amount of time raises our BAC quickly and can lead to dangerous effects.
  • Health conditions. Health conditions not only affect alcohol metabolization but also its absorption. Since alcohol is absorbed through the digestive tract, gastrointestinal issues can impact the rate of absorption. Medical conditions increase the risk of interactions between alcohol and prescribed medications. Direct interactions not only impact absorption but also lead to adverse effects.

Individual and situational factors may impact how quickly we feel the effects of alcohol — making the timeline extremely nuanced. Since there’s no exact answer, why should we be aware of the timing of alcohol’s effects? 

Why Does the Timeline of Alcohol’s Effects Matter?

The timeline of alcohol’s effects on our body and brain is nuanced and complex, but with a general understanding of the factors influencing it, we can drink more mindfully. 

This knowledge may also keep us from drinking too much too quickly and falling prey to alcohol poisoning. Let’s say we’re headed going to a wedding with an open bar. We can plan ahead to make sure we eat more than a tiny canapé before heading to the bar, and we can set limits for ourselves to enjoy a memorable night and get home safely. Thoughtful planning is a key part of mindful drinking, which helps reduce alcohol-related accidents and harm. 

Having a better understanding of alcohol’s effects, including the timeline of its impact, helps us navigate alcohol consumption more safely. While quitting alcohol is the only way to prevent alcohol-related risks, implementing mindful drinking practices can minimize adverse effects.

Navigating the Effects of Alcohol Safely

Now that we have a better understanding of how quickly alcohol can affect us, let’s review the steps we can take to put mindful drinking into practice.

  • Set limits. We can track our alcohol consumption to determine where we can cut back. Reframe App’s drink tracker can help us monitor not just how much we drink but also how much money we spend on alcohol. This step helps us set more attainable goals to work toward. 
  • Identify personal risk factors. Checking our family history, medical conditions, and medication interactions ensures that we can account for additional risk factors — increasing our safety when drinking.
  • Account for situational factors. Identifying factors that can expedite alcohol absorption — drinking on an empty stomach, being in certain social settings, and consuming certain types of alcohol —can help us cut back.
  • Recognize signs of alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning can be extremely dangerous and sometimes fatal. It’s commonly caused by drinking too much and drinking too quickly. Being able to recognize signs of intoxication and early signs of alcohol poisoning can help us identify when we need to stop drinking and seek medical attention to prevent further harm.
  • Reach out for support. Quitting or cutting back on alcohol isn’t always an easy feat. However, there are many different types of support for helping us on our journey to a better relationship with alcohol. Develop a social circle of support through friends and family, try peer support groups through apps like Reframe, or seek professional treatment through detoxification programs or psychological therapies.

Alcohol’s effects may be immediate, but by implementing these practices the next time we reach for the bottle, we can better prioritize our health and well-being. 

Kicking the Habit

Since alcohol travels through our bloodstream, we can feels it effects in as few as 10 minutes. By understanding the general timeline of effects and practicing mindful drinking, we can minimize the risks of alcohol. So, the next time you find yourself thinking, “How long does it take for alcohol to kick in?” remember to sip slowly and let your increased awareness guide you to smarter, healthier drinking choices. Here’s to embracing a balanced lifestyle! 

Summary FAQs

1. How long does it take for alcohol to kick in?

Since alcohol enters the bloodstream immediately, we can start to feel the effects after about 10 minutes.

2. What affects alcohol absorption?

Biological, environmental, physiological, and consumption factors can affect alcohol absorption.

3. How can I measure alcohol’s effects?

Alcohol levels can be measured objectively through breathalyzers and blood and urine tests. Alcohol’s effects can be measured subjectively through reported feelings and observed behaviors.

4. What are some strategies to drink more mindfully?

Setting limits, spacing out our drinks, and tracking our habits are strategies to practice mindful drinking.

5. Does eating before drinking influence the timing of alcohol’s effects?

Eating before drinking can impact the onset of alcohol’s effects. But it’s not possible to give a precise answer because many factors influence alcohol’s effects on an individual.

Practice More Mindful Drinking With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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