It’s a Saturday night and you’re at a party with friends. You couldn’t resist that last round of tequila shots, but now it’s hit you: you’re officially drunk. You need to sober up — fast! — to get home safely, but don’t know what to do. How to get sober in 5 minutes? Is it even possible?
Sadly, no: it’s not possible. In this post, we’ll explore why it’s impossible to sober up from alcohol fast. We’ll also look at different factors that affect how alcohol is processed in our body, and offer tips on how to avoid intoxication. Let’s dive in!
How to Sober Up Quickly From Alcohol
We hate to break it to you, but there are no scientifically-proven ways for how to be sober fast. Despite all the internet’s tips and tricks, the truth is that the only way to sober up from alcohol is to stop drinking and allow time to pass. Why? It all comes down to how our body processes alcohol.
When alcohol is swallowed, it’s quickly absorbed into our bloodstream through our stomach lining and small intestine. We typically begin to feel the effects of alcohol within 15 minutes of drinking. Once in our blood, alcohol is rapidly transported throughout our entire body, which is why it affects so many different bodily systems.
Most of the alcohol that enters our body eventually ends up in the liver, which is responsible for metabolizing it (breaking it down). This process is probably more time-consuming than we think: it takes about 1 hour or longer for our liver to process just one serving of alcohol out of our system. In other words, it takes 1 hour for our body to metabolize just one beer, one glass of wine, or one shot. The more servings we consume, the longer it stays in our system and the more time our body needs to process it out.
How Is Alcohol Measured in the Body?
Numbers don’t lie, and when it comes to measuring levels of intoxication, our blood alcohol concentration (BAC) says it all. BAC is the percentage of alcohol that is in our bloodstream. The more we drink, the higher our BAC becomes — and the longer it takes for us to get sober.
In the United States, someone is considered legally intoxicated if their BAC level is 0.08% or higher. But once our BAC levels go above 0.05% to 0.055%, we’ll typically start to experience alcohol’s negative effects. For instance, the initial feelings of happiness and relaxation might turn into disorientation and depression. At around 0.08 to 0.09%, we lose our sense of balance and our motor skills become impaired. Some people might also begin vomiting at this level due to excess alcohol in their blood and the body’s inability to metabolize alcohol fast enough.
Interestingly, alcohol can be detected in our body for quite some time. This doesn’t mean that we’re still drunk, but that it can still be traced in our body. For instance, alcohol can show up in a blood test for up to 12 hours. Alcohol can also be detected in breath for 12 to 24 hours and in urine for up to 2 to 5 days. It can even be detected in a hair follicle for up to 90 days!
Again, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t sober during these times, it just means that traces of alcohol remain in our system much longer than we might expect.
What Factors Affect the Rate Alcohol Is Processed?
While no one is immune to alcohol’s intoxicating effects, the amount of alcohol in our blood — and how intoxicated we become — can vary based on several factors. Here are five of them:
Our age. The older we are, the longer alcohol stays in our liver before it moves into our general bloodstream or is metabolized. Typically, older people have lower percentages of body water compared to younger people, which can contribute to a higher BAC and a slower processing time.
Our gender. Women tend to metabolize alcohol differently from men due to several physiological reasons. In fact, women tend to feel the effects of alcohol faster and longer compared to men, even when they drink the same amount and are relatively the same size. This is largely due to the fact that women tend to have a higher percentage of body fat and lower percentage of body water than men.
Our weight. Our body size and composition can influence how quickly alcohol is processed. Low-water fatty tissue cannot absorb alcohol to the extent that high-water muscle tissue can. In other words, people with more body fat generally have higher BACs. Similarly, someone who is extremely muscular but of shorter stature will have a higher BAC than someone of the same composition who is taller.
Food consumption. Eating a meal and having food in our stomach before drinking can have a powerful influence on the absorption rate of alcohol. Food dilutes alcohol and slows the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine, where alcohol is rapidly absorbed. Peak BAC could be as much as 3 times higher in someone with an empty stomach than in someone who has consumed food before drinking.
Medications. Certain medications interact with alcohol and alter our metabolism, affecting how our body is able to process alcohol. Some medications slow the emptying from the stomach into the small intestine and liver, causing the alcohol to be rapidly absorbed. This results in higher BAC levels and intoxication that affects our body more quickly. Medications known to interact with alcohol include anti-anxiety medications, such as Xanax, ADHD medications like Adderall, diabetes medications, such as chlorpropamide, and cough and cold medicines.
The bottom line? One or more of these factors can play a role in how alcohol affects us and is metabolized in our body.
How Can We Feel More Alert and Awake?
What about all those internet tips and tricks for sobering up fast — are they just myths? While certain things might help us feel more awake and alert, they don’t actually lower our BAC — and that’s all that matters when it comes to being sober. Only time removes alcohol from our system and helps us sober up!
With that in mind, here are 5 things we can do to help us feel more alert and awake after drinking:
- Drinking a cup of coffee. A cup of coffee might help us feel more alert, but it will not speed up how long it takes us to sober up. However, coffee contains powerful antioxidants that may help reduce the severity of our alcohol-induced symptoms. Unfortunately, coffee is also a diuretic, causing us to become more dehydrated (so have some water with that coffee, too).
- Taking a cold shower. Cold showers don’t lower our BAC levels, but they may help us briefly feel more alert. A cold shower can also give our metabolism a quick boost as our body expends energy trying to stay warm.
- Eating food. Eating food before, during, and after drinking can help slow the absorption of alcohol in our bloodstream. Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach means our body absorbs it more quickly, and we feel its effects more quickly, too. Any foods can help, but carbohydrates — such as bread, pasta, or potatoes — slow down how quickly our body absorbs the alcohol.
- Drinking water. Staying hydrated by drinking water or even diluting drinks with ice can slow down how quickly we feel alcohol’s effects. Drinking water with alcohol can also help prevent dehydration. A general rule of thumb is that for every alcoholic drink we have, we should also have a full glass of water. Staying hydrated throughout a night of drinking can decrease our hangover the next day. But keep this in mind: drinking water does not help us sober up.
- Sleeping. Sleep allows time to pass, and time is the only thing that actually sobers us up and helps get alcohol out of our system. The more sleep we get, the more sober we’ll feel, as sleep gives our liver time to do its job by metabolizing the alcohol.
Some people assume that throwing up can help us become sober. But vomiting has virtually no impact on our BAC since alcohol enters our bloodstream very quickly. However, drinking too much might make us queasy, and vomiting may help alleviate those feelings.
Keep in mind that even if we can become more alert and awake, it’s important not to drive or make important decisions until alcohol is fully out of our system and we are actually sober. This can take at least several hours, depending on how much we’ve consumed.
How Can We Avoid Intoxication?
We won’t have to worry about getting sober fast if we avoid alcohol or consume it in moderation. Mindful drinking can be particularly effective at helping us make more intentional choices. Here are 5 other tips for avoiding intoxication:
- Count your drinks. It’s easy to lose track of the amount of alcohol we consume. Try using a notepad app in your phone to document every drink you have in one sitting — whether at a party, dinner, or event. This can help you become more aware of how much you’re consuming. You can even take this one step further by limiting yourself to one drink every hour.
- Sip slowly. Savor each drink, taking slow sips and staying active, such as chatting with friends. It can help to stick to drinks that take time to finish, such as beer or wine (as opposed to shots or mixed drinks, which are intended to be gulped down).
- Don’t mix drinks. Mixing different types of alcohol drinks can rapidly bring up BAC levels and make us feel intoxicated much more quickly than if we stick to one kind only. Mixing drinks may also cause us to consume a larger amount of alcohol in a short period of time.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. For every alcoholic drink you have, try consuming a full glass of water. This helps us not only stay hydrated, but it limits the amount of alcohol we consume by keeping us fuller. It also gives our liver time to break down the alcohol. Even moderate levels of alcohol cause dehydration, and drinking water can slow this effect down.
- Eat something. It’s best not to drink on an empty stomach, so make sure to eat before drinking or snack while you’re drinking. Food in our stomach slows our absorption of alcohol. Eating can also help us drink at a slower rate, since we’re doing something instead of solely drinking.
The Bottom Line
There’s no way around it: it’s impossible to sober up from alcohol quickly. The tips and tricks we hear about can help us feel more alert and awake, but they don’t lower our blood alcohol concentration (BAC) — the only true measure of intoxication. Our body needs time to process the alcohol away, and time is the only way we can actually get sober. While different factors can influence how efficiently alcohol is metabolized in our body, the more we drink, the more our BAC will rise, and the longer it will take for us to get sober.
If you want to cut back on your alcohol consumption, consider trying Reframe. We’re a science-backed app that has helped millions of people change their drinking habits and develop a healthier lifestyle.