The down and dirty and alcohol metabolism and other ways it messes with your body.

Alcohol Metabolism

Ever curious what happens when alcohol beings to be metabolized? For the most part, alcohol metabolism in our bodies due in part to an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. It isn’t until alcohol reaches our small intestine that it begins to be metabolized by the body.

Factors That Contribute To Alcohol Metabolism

There are several different ways that alcohol metabolism can be affected and those can include any of the following:

Race: Are you Asian or Native American? You don’t have as much alcohol dehydrogenase and metabolize alcohol slower than other races.
Age: As you age the liver isn’t as efficient at alcohol metabolism and alcohol can remain in the body longer. The percentage of water in our bodies is less as we age as well which contributes to increased toxicity.
Gender: Females tend to be smaller and carry a lower percentage of water causing alcohol to have more of an effect.
Gender, race, size, physical condition, foods you’ve been eating, amount of sleep you’ve had, and even the type of alcoholic beverage can all effect the way alcohol is absorbed.
Foods: Foods higher in protein and fat content take longer to be digested in the body and can slow alcohol absorption. Eating foods of any kind will stimulate gastric juices which can help dilute the alcohol content in the body. Obviously, eating on an empty stomach will mean quicker absorption and faster alcohol metabolism.

What Happens When Alcohol Enters The Stomach?

Alcohol metabolism doesn’t actually begin until it enters the small intestine. For alcohol to be moved into our cells, it actually doesn’t require too much work – just simple cell transfusion.

As alcohol crosses cell membranes it actually can damage our cells but most of the cell damage occurs in the liver because it’s the first organ to be exposed to alcohol after absorption. The cells in the intestines aren’t effected as much because they have a shorter lifespan and are replaced more frequently.

Once alcohol is inside the body and being absorbed, the body starts treating alcohol as a toxin and works to eliminate it or convert it to energy using an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. This enzyme breaks down about ninety percent of alcohol consumed.

When it comes to men versus women, women can’t metabolize alcohol as quickly because of lower levels of the enzyme. Men also metabolize thirty percent of the alcohol in the intestine compared with women. After being metabolized in the intestines, alcohol then goes on to the liver to be metabolized into carbon dioxide, water, and energy. Unfortunately, one of the by products of converting alcohol into those three products is something called acetaldehyde – a known carcinogen. What’s not metabolized in the liver will be excreted through the lungs, urine, and sweat (which is why you can test for alcohol through breathalyzer tests).

A person who drinks socially with healthy liver function can metabolize about five to seven grams of alcohol in an hour – that’s about half a beer or a fourth of a regular sized drink.

The Body Treats Metabolizes Alcohol Like A Poison

The body treats alcohol as a poison so it takes a priority in metabolism as a fuel source. Because other sources of energy aren’t being used – they end up taking over other energy sources such as fat or carbohydrates. Alcohol metabolism is similar to that of fat metabolism so because of this, alcohol increases fat buildup and leads to an increase in fat in the liver, abdomen, and generalized body fat. Because the body treats alcohol like a poison and uses it as a fuel source, this means that other sources of energy like sugars and fats won’t be used for energy and will just be used by the body and just be stored as fat – leading to possible weight gain.

What Happens When Alcohol Is Consumed Too Fast?

Sometimes alcohol is consumed at a rate that the liver can’t handle. This is probably obvious to most of us – when alcohol is consumed too rapidly, the consequences can be fatal. The normal pathway for alcohol metabolism can’t always keep up so another way of metabolizing alcohol takes over. This pathway is called the microsomal ethonol oxidizing system (MEOS). This pathway uses oxygen and a niacin co-enzyme (a type of vitamin B) to metabolize alcohol. Once the MEOS pathway is active, it’s easier for a person to tolerate more alcohol because the rate of alcohol metabolism is increased. During this time, the risks of overdosing on other drugs is increased because the liver’s reduced capability for metabolizing other drugs.

Alcohol As Your Energy Source

One of the most surprising things that I come across in my field is that some people are unaware that alcohol contributes to any kind of caloric intake. One gram of alcohol is equal to about seven calories. To put this into comparison, one gram of carbohydrates and proteins are equal to four calories and one gram of fat is equal to nine calories. An average drink has about fourteen grams of alcohol in it which is equal to about ninety-eight calories. Then of course are all the extra calories from sugars contained in drinks. Four drinks in a one week period are at least an extra three hundred ninety-two calories – which can be a huge source if weight loss is something that you’re concerned about. Most of us tend to underestimate the sizes of our drinks as well.


1. Hampl, Jeffry S. Wardlaw, Gordon, M. Perspectives in Nutrition. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 2007. 274-277 Print.