When alcohol is ingested into the body it makes contact with your mouth, throat and esophagus. Alcohol then reaches the stomach, where about 20% of it is absorbed almost immediately into the blood stream, especially if a person has not eaten recently. With food in the stomach, absorption is delayed, as are the effects of alcohol. The remainder of the alcohol then passes through to the small intestine, where it is further absorbed.
Once alcohol enters the blood stream, it is carried throughout the body to virtually every major organ, including the brain. Alcohol is not “natural” or “healthy,” even in “moderation.” In fact, it is actually a poison to our system. Consequently, the body’s physiologic response is to get alcohol to the liver and detoxify it as quickly as possible.
A fully functioning liver can metabolize, or detoxify, only about a third of an once of alcohol per hour in a healthy, adult male, slightly less for females. This is less than the traditional “1 drink per hour,” as there is typically one-half to one ounce of alcohol in a “standard” drink regardless of what it is (beer, wine, liquor). Also, it should be noted that the rate at which alcohol is metabolized is virtually the same for everyone, regardless of their height, weight, sex, race or other factors. Our organs are the same basic size and weight. Further, despite bartender prescriptions to the contrary, there are no proven methods for increasing our metabolism, such as drinking coffee, exercising, or taking hot showers.
Problems start to occur when more alcohol is put into our system than we can process. The amount of alcohol breakdown remains a constant, and the liver is unable to metabolize the excess alcohol being consumed. At this point, most people physically become “intoxicated” and appear “drunk.” If a person continues drinking, the body then goes to other methods of detoxification, including the kidneys and producing more urine. Hence, this is the reason people joke about “renting beer or liquor,” and urine tests can be used to show alcohol in the system. If drinking still continues, the body’s last defense is vomiting. After vomiting, toxic alcohol levels can overwhelm the body and result in coma, or even death. This is the reason why inexperienced drinkers, such as college students or binge drinkers, end up in the emergency room or morgue.
One last interesting physiologic fact is that the human body actually produces alcohol on its own, called endogenous ethanol. The amount has been shown to be up to an ounce a day, and certain foods can affect this production. Unfortunately, alcohol testing do not distinguish between alcohol produced by the body and what may have been ingested. Consequently, in close BAC level cases, the results may be misleadingly elevated. And, with the exception of an actual blood sample, all other current DWI testing (breath, urine) only provide an estimate of BAC. Erroneous results have and continue to occur.
This is a guest post from Robert Reeves, an experienced DUI Lawyer, and former Registered Nurse, proudly serving residents in South Carolina.