Most of us have heard the saying “one for the road.”
The origins of the term are murky, but we mostly understand it as having a last drink before saying goodbye and heading home.
However, most of us also know that the “one for the road” can also be the killer. You feel fine when you have it, but about 45 minutes later, you are all of a sudden really, really drunk.
How long does it take to get drunk after that last drink? It depends because although the alcohol you drink enters your system quickly, it takes between half an hour and an hour to absorb all of it and cause your blood alcohol content (BAC) to reach its peak level.
How long will it take you to get drunk? What slows the rise of your BAC? Keep reading to find out.
What Does It Mean to Be Drunk?
Buzzed. Tipsy. Plastered. These are all words that we’re familiar with. But what does it actually mean to be drunk?
This is a subject we covered in a previous blog post, but it’s worth re-hashing here.
There are many stages involved in drunkenness. They start with sobriety and end with death. Yes, it gets very dark, very fast:
Each of these correlates with a certain blood alcohol content (BAC).
Sobriety, in this case, doesn’t mean stonecold sober – or the state you’re in before you have a drink. It refers to a BAC of 0.01 and 0.05, which you’ll note is below the legal limit.
You can stay sober if you have or two drinks, depending on your ‘tolerance,’ which we’ll talk about later.
The next stages are:
Euphoria – 0.03-0.12
Excitement – 0.09-0.25
Confusion – 0.12-0.30
Stupor – 0.25-0.4
Coma – 0.35-0.45
There are many stages (and drinks) between sobriety and death, but death as a result of drinking more common than you think. The CDC says six people a day die from alcohol intoxication and poisoning.
Most of these include people who drink twice the weekly amount normally considered to be binge drinking – in only a few hours (30+ drinks).
But how long does it take to get drunk? How do you go from fine after two beers to drunk after four? It all depends on how quickly you absorb your alcohol into your bloodstream.
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How Quickly Do You Absorb Alcohol into Your Bloodstream?
The pace at which you move through the stages of drunkenness depends on how quickly alcohol moves into your bloodstream.
Both the amount you drink and the rate of absorption plays a role in your BAC (and exposure of other organs to alcohol).
When you drink alcohol, it enters your stomach and small intestine and then gets absorbed into the blood via the lining of those organs.
Your blood alcohol levels start to rise within 90 seconds, and they reach their peak between 20-30 minutes after you drink, depending on what you drink.
This is why a tequila shot you do before leaving the bar only entirely hits you on your way home.
However, what type of alcohol you drink also plays an important role.
Scientists looked at the rate of absorption among men who had been fasting, and asked, “How long does it take to get drunk from a base level?”
The study found that the men’s peak BAC was much higher after drinking a vodka tonic than after a glass of wine. Beer brought on the lowest peak BAC. It also found that the time to the max BAC was much shorter after a vodka tonic (36 minutes) than after wine (54 minutes) and beer (62 minutes).
In other words, drinking spirits is more likely to hit your harder and faster (higher peak BAC and earlier) than drinking wine or beer. However, it can also mean that beer can be more dangerous: you won’t feel the full effects of your beer, so you might think you’re ready for another when you should sub out the round for water.
What Factors Impact How Long it takes you to get Drunk?
Why can you drink five beers, but your friend can only have one? The science of drunkenness is far from precise because there are so many variables involved.
Let’s talk about some of the most significant factors that impact your body’s ability to process alcohol.
Your Age Age, Weight and Biological Sex
Your BAC after three beers or seven often depends on factors like:
Your biological sex
As you age, fat tissues replace your muscle mass and the amount of water in your body decreases. These both contribute to a higher BAC. Additionally, alcohol stays in your liver longer as you get older before you metabolize it, which not only contributes to liver damage but can keep your BAC high.
Additionally, your body weight plays a role because more space provides the alcohol more room to diffuse in the body.
Why does sex play a role?
Differences in male and female body composition mean that you metabolize alcohol at different rates. Men have a higher count of alcohol dehydrogenase and acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (the enzymes that metabolize alcohol) than women do.
What You Eat and Drink
How long does it take to get drunk if you eat a meal before you start drinking? It takes substantially more time. If you have a drink on an empty stomach, alcohol enters your body faster. Eating before drinking slows down the rate of absorption from your stomach and small intestine into your blood.
Studies show it doesn’t matter whether you eat carbs, fat, or protein. Any food, regardless of its nutrients, reduces the availability of ethanol (alcohol) because the process of gastric emptying is slower with food in your stomach than when your stomach is empty.
Your rate of absorption also depends on the strength of the alcohol and what you mix it with.
Remember the study where the participants drank vodka tonics on an empty stomach? The reason the vodka tonic hit them quicker was that (1) they hadn’t eaten, and (2) aerated mixers (tonic) get the alcohol into your system faster. If the participants had just drunk vodka, they would have absorbed it more slowly because grain spirits actually delay gastric emptying and slow down absorption.
Whether you’re on medication also impacts your BAC, which again impacts how long it takes to get drunk.
Some drugs slow down alcohol metabolism, which means that one drink can leave you with a higher BAC for longer than you would experience if you weren’t on the medication. Some (but not all) of the medicines best known for their interactions include:
Histamine H2 receptor antagonists
Not all of these will raise or lower your BAC. However, the interactions could change the way you feel when you drink. For example, if you are taking a benzodiazepine like Xanax, then alcohol can potentiate the effect of Xanax on your central nervous system, making you feel drowsier or limiting your motor skills.
This is why it’s so important to ask your doctor about any interactions with alcohol before you start taking a new medication.
So, how do you account for your friend who gets drunk on two glasses of wine and doesn’t have a metabolism issue and isn’t on medication?
Alcohol expectancy also impacts how long it takes to get “drunk.” Studies show that your expectations of what it means to be drunk can actually affect you more than the alcohol itself.
For example, if you are on a mission to get drunk, you can feel the effects of alcohol even on mocktails (if you don’t know they’re alcohol-free).
If you tell everyone, “Whiskey makes me angry,” then there’s a strong chance the whiskey will, indeed, make you angry. It won’t happen because there’s a biological mechanism that triggers anger in all people but because it’s what you expect and know to be true.
Alcohol Tolerance (Functional Tolerance)
Finally, let’s talk about what happens when you drink regularly over time.
We colloquially refer to your ‘drinking abilities’ as your tolerance.
What is tolerance, really? Hint: it’s not a personality trait, per se. Instead, your tolerance is the brain function you develop to compensate for the impact alcohol has on your bodily functions and your behavior. These baseline adaptations are your “functional tolerance.”
Your functional tolerance doesn’t develop evenly across all your body processes. For example, your tolerance might develop in a way where your hand-eye coordination falls apart, but you’re mentally clear enough to take a simple math test.
There are also different types of functional tolerance, including your acute tolerance, environment-dependent tolerance, metabolic tolerance, learned tolerance.
The development of each of these impacts how you experience alcohol.
How Long Does It Take to Get Drunk?
How long does it take to get drunk? There are many different phases of drunkenness, and the time it takes you to reach them depends on what you drink, whether you eat, and on a long list of biological factors from your weight to your metabolism.
What’s most important is that you drink safely. If you feel yourself moving from the excitement to the confusion phase of drunkenness, it’s time to be very careful about how much you drink later.
Now that you know how long it takes to get drunk, it’s good to know how long alcohol stays in your system.