How Does Alcohol Affect Drinkers Who Haven’t Eaten?

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How Does Alcohol Affect Drinkers Who Haven’t Eaten?People who consume alcohol in bars or other social settings often have not eaten a  considerable amount of food for a number of hours. In turn, lack of food can contribute significantly to a drinker developing a blood-alcohol level high enough to produce legal intoxication and increase the risks for alcohol-related harm. In a study published in March 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from three U.S. institutions compared the varying effects that hard liquor consumption, wine consumption and beer consumption have on the blood-alcohol levels of people who drink on empty stomachs.

The Basics

All alcoholic beverages contain the same active ingredient: ethyl alcohol (also known as ethanol or drinking alcohol). However, because they’re made in different ways, the four main types of alcoholic beverages (beer, malt liquor, wine and distilled or hard liquor) have significant variations in their ethyl alcohol content. Beer, for example, typically has a 5 percent alcohol content and delivers a standard “drink” of undiluted ethyl alcohol (approximately 14 grams or 0.5 ounces) in one 12-oz serving. Malt liquor delivers a drink of ethyl alcohol in one 9-oz serving. Most wine has a 12 percent alcohol content and delivers a standard drink in one 5-oz serving. Distilled liquor is the most potent alcoholic beverage. An 80-proof brand of vodka, whiskey, gin, etc. has a 40 percent alcohol content and delivers a standard drink of ethyl alcohol in one 1.5-oz serving. Distilled liquors with a higher proof have an even higher alcohol content and lower serving size per drink.

Blood Alcohol Level

The official term for your blood-alcohol level is your blood-alcohol concentration, or BAC. This level rises whenever you consume more alcohol than your body can eliminate in any given amount of time (elimination of a standard drink takes about an hour). At a relatively low BAC of 0.02 percent, the average person will experience alcohol-related effects that include changes in mood, heightened relaxation and the beginnings of judgment impairment. A BAC of 0.05 percent produces effects that commonly include pleasure, a lowered state of personal inhibition, increasing judgment impairment and a less alert mental state. At legal intoxication (a BAC of 0.08 percent), common effects include a serious decline in judgment and other conscious mental faculties, as well as significant loss of the muscle coordination necessary to maintain body control and operate a motor vehicle. In addition to the amount and pace of alcohol intake, factors that affect your blood alcohol concentration include how much you weigh, whether you’re male or female and whether or not you have recently eaten food.

Effects on an Empty Stomach

In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and ABMRF/The Foundation for Alcohol Research examined the ways in which alcohol is processed by people who consume beer, wine or hard liquor on an empty stomach. In three separate drinking sessions, 15 adult men drank beer, wine and a mixed drink containing vodka and tonic water for 20 minutes after abstaining from food since the previous day. For each participant, the researchers measured the rate of ethyl alcohol uptake after consuming each type of beverage, as well as the maximum blood-alcohol concentration and the amount of time it took to reach that maximum concentration.

After analyzing the results of the drinking sessions, the researchers came to several conclusions. First, in the allowed 20-minute timeframe, consumption of a mixed drink produced a substantially higher maximum BAC than consumption of wine or beer. In addition, this maximum BAC occurred substantially faster than the maximum blood-alcohol impact of either wine or beer. The researchers also concluded that the amount of time over which a mixed drink produces its effects on blood-alcohol levels is substantially greater than the amount of time over which wine and beer produce their effects.

Significance and Considerations

After drinking a vodka/tonic mixed beverage for 20 minutes, six of the 15 study participants surpassed the limit for legal intoxication, the authors of the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research note. In contrast, none of the participants surpassed this limit after consuming beer or alcohol for that same amount of time. In line with this finding, the authors concluded that binge-drinking risks are substantially higher in men who drink hard liquor-based drinks on an empty stomach than in men who drink beer or wine on an empty stomach.