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How Long Does It Take Alcohol To Reach The Brain

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Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain And Memory

What are the effects of alcohol?

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

Alcohols effects on memory and overall brain health can be good or bad depending on many factors. But even long-term damage can be overcome. Learn how.

Somewhere along the line, you may have heard that every drink you take destroys brain cells.

Conversely, you may have also heard that drinking alcohol can help you live a long and healthy life, and possibly protect your brain from age-related mental decline.

So what is the truth about alcohol, the brain, and memory?

Lets take a look at what the latest evidence shows.

How Long Does It Take For Alcohol To Affect Brain Function

Alcohol takes approximately 5 minutes to reach the brain, although the beverages effects occur around 10 minutes. 

When your BAC increases, alcohol begins to affect the brain and nervous system. This means you can experience changes in judgement and decision-making capabilities and become more uninhibited. 

At the same time, because alcohol impacts cells in the nervous system, you can feel lightheadedness, slower reaction times, and more inadequate coordination skills. 

This list describes more effects caused by alcohol on the brain and nervous system. As youll see, alcohols effects can range from mild to moderate, depending on how much and how quickly you drink:

  • Initial phase of euphoria
  • Confusion 
  • Blackouts

In more severe cases, if your BAC reaches 0.30, you run the risk of coma or brain damage. This occurs because alcohol slows breathing and circulation, preventing oxygen from reaching the brain. 

If your BAC goes over 0.35, you could die from alcohol intoxication or by the brains inability to regulate all of your vital physical functions. 

How Does Alcohol Move Through The Body

Once swallowed, a drink enters the stomach and small intestine, where small blood vessels carry it to the bloodstream. Approximately 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and most of the remaining 80% is absorbed through the small intestine.

Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, where enzymes break down the alcohol. Understanding the rate of metabolism is critical to understanding the effects of alcohol. In general, the liver can process one ounce of liquor in one hour. If you consume more than this, your system becomes saturated, and the additional alcohol will accumulate in the blood and body tissues until it can be metabolized. This is why pounding shots or playing drinking games can result in high blood alcohol concentrations that last for several hours.

For an interactive look at alcohol moving through the human body,

Can Alcohol Be Found In Breast Milk

Yes. Alcohol levels are usually highest in breast milk 30-60 minutes after an alcoholic beverage is consumed, and can be generally detected in breast milk for about 2-3 hours per drink after it is consumed. However, the length of time alcohol can be detected in breast milk will increase the more alcohol a mother consumes. For example, alcohol from 1 drink can be detected in breast milk for about 2-3 hours, alcohol from 2 drinks can be detected for about 4-5 hours, and alcohol from 3 drinks can be detected for about 6-8 hours, and so on. However, blood alcohol levels and the length of time alcohol can be detected in breast milk after drinking will depend on a number of factors, including the amount of alcohol consumed, how fast the alcohol is consumed, whether it is consumed with food, how much a mother weighs, and how fast alcohol is broken down in a mothers body.

When Is Alcohol No Longer Detected On A Test

This is your brain on whisky

The amount of time alcohol can be detected in your system depends on the type of test used.

  • Blood: up to 6 hours
  • Breathalyzer: 12-24 hours
  • Saliva: 12-24 hours
  • Urine: 12-24 hours for older methods of testing; 72 hours or longer for newer methods that test for ethanol metabolites such as ethyl glucuronide and ethyl sulfate
  • Hair: up to 90 days2,6

Since alcohol is metabolized fairly quickly, most clinicians rely on observations of alcohol usesuch as slurred speech or the smell of alcoholor a breathalyzer test to confirm intoxication or recent drinking.2

Areas Of The Brain Affected By Substance Use

While alcohol and drugs affect the entire brain, some regions are more involved with SUD than others. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains the effects of drugs on the brain in the article Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction, which focuses on the overstimulation of three key brain areas: the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the pre-frontal cortex.

  • The basal ganglia, associated with the brains reward system, recognizes pleasurable activities such as enjoying a good meal or having fun with friends. When overstimulated by drug use, though, it loses sensitivity to natural neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. With continued drug use, drugs become the only stimulus that activates this reward center.
  • The extended amygdala is associated with negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and irritability. These are symptoms a person experiences when a substance leaves the bloodstream. To avoid the negative symptoms of withdrawal, individuals often take more drugs, creating a feedback loop.
  • The pre-frontal cortex is the area of the brain that governs decision making, logic, problem-solving, self-control, and impulse control. When this area of the brain is affected by drugs, confusion and poor decisions dominate the cognitive process.

Several drugs, including alcohol, affect the cerebellum. The cerebellum assists with muscle control and coordination, which is why people who have had too many drinks may stumble and weave when they walk.

What Is Alcoholic Neuropathy

Neuropathy is weakness, numbness and tingling in the nerves, typically affecting the nerves of the feet and hands. Alcoholic neuropathy describes nerve damage caused by alcohol use. Alcoholic neuropathy can exist all by itself or as a part of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It can also lead to nerve pain and lasting discomfort.

Symptoms and Causes of Alcoholic Neuropathy

Alcohol can affect the way that vitamins are processed by the body and how they enter nerve cells. This impairs nerve cells and affects their ability to interact with the body. Alcohol also generates reactive molecules called free radicals that can cause damage to sensitive nerve cells. Nerve cells in the hands and feet are more likely to be affected by the damage caused by alcoholic neuropathy.

Nerve cells influence the bodys ability to receive and send signals from the brain. Damage affecting signals to the brain can impair muscle movements, coordination, temperature sensation, pressure sensation, pain sensation and other sensory functions of the nerves. Impaired sensation can lead to an increased risk of injury, further damaging the nerves.

Symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy can include:

  • Weakness
  • Nerve pain
  • Numbness

Can The Brain Heal Itself After Addiction

The brain is a remarkable organ, capable of incredible breakthroughs and life-changing ideas and actions. Yet because of its delicate structure and chemistry, the brain is also highly vulnerable to addiction.

Fortunately, researchers have found that brains that have been harmed by addiction do have the potential to unlearn addictive behaviors, although the risk for addiction never magically disappears.

Researchers have studied several different ways that the brain has adjusted back to a baseline level during and after addiction treatment. A 2013 study published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that incorporating mindfulness and meditation into addiction treatment could lessen the risk of relapse. The study also indicates that brain pathways that can trigger relapse may be retrained by mindfulness practice.

Another study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that individuals who chronically used methamphetamines had lower numbers of dopamine proteins than individuals who did not use the drug. As a result, methamphetamine users frequently suffered challenges with movement and memory and may have been at a higher risk for Parkinsons disease. Researchers found that 12 months of recovery led to an increased number of dopamine proteins These findings suggest that the brain can begin to heal itself in the aftermath of drug use.

How Long Does It Take For The Brain To Recover From Drinking Science Says Longer Than We Think

How Drug and Alcohol Abuse Affect the Brain

    Alcohol takes a rapid toll on the brain, as most of us know, and caution is well warranted about what we choose to do while under its influence. What isnt so well known is the hit our brains take much later, after the booze has left the system.

    The latest research on the topic was a meta-analysis of several studies that examined brain impairment hours to a day after heavy drinking. With few exceptions, these studies showed that our cognitive abilities, like attention and memory, are debilitated even when alcohol in the blood is no longer measurable.

    Impaired performance in these abilities reflects poorer concentration and focus, decreased memory and reduced reaction times, said lead study author Craig Gunn of the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath.

    Why this happens is largely about how embattled our bodies and brains are from the chemical assault that comes with heavy drinking . Alcohol is a potent diuretic that causes the body to lose a lot of liquid, up to four times whats consumed while drinking, leading to dehydration. To compensate, organs draw in as much fluid as they can, leaving the brain fighting to stay hydrated. As a result, the brain durathe membrane that encases the brain and spinal cordactually shrinks.

    In other words, drinking isnt just about the time spent drinking, its also about all of the time its going to take to recover, and our brains recover slower than we think.

    The study was published in the journal Addiction.

    Blood Alcohol Concentration And Liver Metabolism Rate

    Drinking isnt a guessing gamethere are science-backed methods to understand how intoxicated you are based on your body type.

    The blood alcohol concentration scale shows how much of your bloodstream is pure alcohol. For example, if you have a BAC of .10, it means that .1% of your bloodstream is alcohol. The scale looks like this:

    • At .04, most people begin to feel relaxed.
    • .08 is the legal intoxication level in most states. However, driving can be impaired by BACs as low as .02.
    • At .12, most people feel the need to vomit.
    • At .30, many people lose consciousness.
    • A BAC of .45 is usually fatal.

    BAC charts make it easy to see what a healthy range is for you. The charts are separated by male and female, since the male body tends to have more water and therefore a higher alcohol tolerance. Women also have significantly less of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in their stomach than men do.

    Everybody is different in how many drinks they need to reach a given BAC. For a man who weighs 180 pounds, three drinks will put him at .06. An hour later, hell have a BAC of .04. Based on this chart, a woman who weighs 140 pounds and has two drinks in an hour will have a BAC of .07.

    Lastly, if you eat before drinking, youll be able to keep your BAC lower since it prevents the alcohol from moving to the small intestine too quickly. But the only way to keep alcohol from reaching the bladder is to keep alcohol from entering your bloodstream in the first place.

    Factors That Affect Alcohol Metabolism

    There is no set timeframe for how long alcohol stays in your system. The speed of elimination depends on your:

    • Medications: Many prescription and over-the-counter meds have dangerous interactions with alcohol. Ask your doctor whether drinking is safe for you if you take any medications.
    • Sex: Studies have shown that women take longer than men to process alcohol.
    • Age: As we age, the speed of alcohol processing slows down.
    • Body size: The less you weigh, the less water you have in your body. Alcohol goes into the water in your blood but if you have less water, your blood alcohol concentration will be higher. Smaller people can drink the same amount of alcohol as larger people but have a higher BAC.
    • Health conditions: Kidney, liver and stomach conditions make it harder for your body to process alcohol.

    What Is A Hangover And Can I Prevent It

    Hangovers are the body’s reaction to poisoning and withdrawal from alcohol. Hangovers begin 8 to 12 hours after the last drink and symptoms include fatigue, depression, headache, thirst, nausea, and vomiting. The severity of symptoms varies according to the individual and the quantity of alcohol consumed.

    People have tried many different things to relieve the effects of “the morning after,” and there are a lot of myths about what to do to prevent or alleviate a hangover. The only way to prevent a hangover is to drink in moderation:

    • Eat a good dinner and continue to snack throughout the night.
    • Alternate one alcoholic drink with one non-alcoholic drink.
    • Avoid drinking games or shots. Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time is the most likely way to become dangerously intoxicated.

    Here are some of the things that WON’T help a hangover:

    Here are some things that MIGHT help a hangover:

    How Long Does It Take For The Brain To Recover From Addiction

    The Mental, Physical, and Social Effects Of Alcohol

    Most people are surprised at how quickly they feel better once they get past initial withdrawal symptoms. Within a few days, most people feel less cloudy and have more positive energy. The timeline depends on

  • Which substance was being used?
  • How much was being used?
  • Overall health
  • Presence of other mental health disorders
  • Support system & access to treatment
  • Dont get discouraged. It may take months before you feel completely back to normal, but youll feel better as you make progress along the way.

    You can break down brain recovery into three parts:

    • Dopamine Production: Drugs trigger a dopamine release Abused substances trigger dopamine production at high levels and a rapid pace. Over time, the brain learns to stop producing dopamine naturally and must relearn to do so.
    • Retraining the Brain: This may mean eliminating habits that pull the individual towards addiction, engaging in new thought patterns, or teaching it to respond differently to stimuli.
    • Cravings: The desire to use is most intense during your first few days sober. Over time, cravings are reduced to passive thoughts that are easily shaken off. 

    No one becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol overnight, and just the same it takes time for the brain to heal from addiction. Be patient and trust the process.

    How The Body Processes Alcohol

    The body follows a pretty straightforward process when digesting and metabolizing alcohol. Therefore, the amount of time that a drink will stay in someones system has more to do with how much a person drinks than any other factor.

    Once swallowed, alcohol enters the digestive system and travels to the stomach and small intestine. Approximately 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach, and most of the remaining 80% is absorbed in the small intestine, then directly to the bloodstream. Once in the blood, alcohol is rapidly transported throughout the entire body, which is why alcohol impacts so many different bodily systems. Most of the alcohol that enters the body eventually ends up in the liver, where the vast majority of alcohol metabolism takes place. In general, the liver can process one ounce of liquor in one hour. If an individual consumes more than this, the system becomes saturated, and the additional alcohol will accumulate in the blood and other tissues until it can be metabolized. If this happens too many times or too fast, damage to the brain and tissues of the body can develop.

    The human body is very effective at processing alcohol, provided that alcohol is not consumed so quickly as to cause alcohol poisoning. It is estimated that between 90% and 98% of all alcohol that enters the body is metabolized and absorbed. The remaining alcohol is then expelled from the body through sweat, urine, vomit, and feces.

    Does Everyone Blackout From Alcohol

    Everyone has a different tolerance for how much alcohol they can consume before intoxication goes to the next level and results in an alcohol blackout. Having one or two alcoholic cocktails with some friends on a full stomach over a few hours at the holiday party seems harmless. Those with an alcoholic mindset find themselves falling into this hole most often. Due to having alcoholism and addiction buried in their DNA, this can be a difficult cycle to overcome. Blacking out from alcohol can be not only embarrassing but very dangerous as well. 

    Some people, in fact, can function quite well when they have reached the point where their memory fails them from an overindulgence of alcohol. Those that are enjoying their time right along with them, may not even notice that the fun has been taken too far, until it is too late. Though they are seemingly having a great time like everyone else at the gathering or pub, their overindulgence of alcohol has led them down a dangerous road. An alcohol blackout happens when drinking in excess has reached a point where the part of the brain that is responsible for sensory input cannot reach the memory station of the brain. Regardless of the many factors that can lead to alcohol blackouts, most people who have ever gone out to some festivity or another have experienced one of these neurological shutdowns.

    Is Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome Reversible

    WKS is a potentially reversible condition.2,5,7 The severity of a persons symptoms, how early a person begins treatment, and the type of treatment that they receive can all have a significant impact on whether a case of WKS can be reversed or alleviated.2,4

    Some people may make a full recovery, although this is rare. Thiamine therapy will offer varying levels of improvement in symptoms after 5-12 days.6

    Alcohol And Memory Loss In Seniors

    Can The Brain Recover From Addiction

    While moderate drinking can help keep seniors mentally sharp, years of heavy drinking take their toll.

    One large study of 7,000 seniors found that those who had 2.5 daily drinks experienced memory loss six years sooner than those who drank moderately.

    Alcohol is responsible for alcohol-related dementia, the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimers.

    Alcohol-related dementia accounts for 10% of all dementia cases. 

    How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain In The Long Term

    When alcohol is consumed regularly over time , it can take a toll on the brain, especially in the prefrontal cortex and regions of the cerebellum. The prefrontal cortex is linked to executive functions like planning and decision-making, and the cerebellum is responsible for balance and motor function.

    When these portions of the brain are affected, it can lead to problems with:

    • Multitasking
    • Speech
    • Alertness

    Even small amounts of alcohol can cause the entire brain to shrink if consumed habitually over an extended period of time. The reasons for this brain shrinkage are unclear, but because alcohol dehydrates tissues, constant dehydration may have negative effects on the brain.

    Other studies indicate that smaller brains are also lighter in weight than those without an alcohol use disorder. The good news, however, is that some of the damage can be reversed when the drinking stops.

    Excessive alcohol consumption is also linked to complex brain problems, such as:

    How Long Can Tests Detect Alcohol In The Body

    When it comes to passing an alcohol test, theres no guarantee. More sensitive or higher quality tests can pick up smaller amounts of alcohol. And because everyone metabolizes alcohol at their own rate, some people will take longer to clear it than others.

    In general, this is the maximum amount of time tests can detect alcohol after you consume it:

    • Hair test: 90 days.

    What Is The Difference Between A Blackout And Passing Out

    “Blackouts” occur when people have no memory of what happened while intoxicated. These periods may last from a few hours to several days. During a blackout, someone may appear fine to others; however, the next day they cannot remember parts of the night and what they did. The cause of blackouts is not well understood but may involve the interference of short-term memory storage, deep seizures, or in some cases, psychological depression.

    Blackouts shouldn’t be confused with “passing out,” which happens when people lose consciousness from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Losing consciousness means that the person has reached a very dangerous level of intoxication; they could slip into a coma and die. If someone has passed out, call EMS immediately . S/he needs immediate medical attention.

    What Is Considered A Standard Drink

    How long does it take for alcohol to reach the brain ...

    According to guidelines established in the United States, a standard drink will not have more than 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. 

    So, you can better understand how much alcohol that is in general, you can use the following drink measurements to compare:

    • 12 ounces of beer
    • 8 ounces of malt liquor
    • 5 ounce glass of wine
    • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits 

    Find Help For Your Addiction

    You dont have to overcome your addiction alone. Professional guidance and support is available. Begin a life of recovery by reaching out to a specialist today.

    Alcohol Blackouts And Bad Decisions

    When a person gets to the point of blacking out from alcohol, they are usually extremely intoxicated. A lot of the time, alcohol blackouts and alcohol poisoning will coincide with each other. A person will begin to lose all cognitive and rational thought as they habitually down more of the alcoholic beverage. Blacking out can be extremely dangerous due to impaired motor function and horrible judgment and bad decisions. Making irrational decisions or having a more charged emotional response to something said, done, or seen, goes along with alcohol consumption in general. However, when a person is completely blacked out and still experiences these heightened or unnecessary compulsions, the brain is not able to work appropriately to restore rational though, and things can get seriously out of hand and seriously quick. 

    But do not be fooled, blacking out is not something that only happens to alcoholics. Yes, a person that has an alcohol addiction will typically overindulge in drinking and are more prone to going through it. But, this can happen to anybody with a low tolerance or even just a knack and desire for binge drinking.

    How Excessive Alcohol Affects The Brain

    While theres a substantial body of evidence that moderate drinking promotes health, the same cant be said of immoderate drinking.

    The slurred speech, glassy eyes, stumbling, fumbling, and poor judgment experienced when drunk makes it painfully obvious how significantly alcohol temporarily affects the brain.

    But there is no evidence to support the myth that occasional overindulging in alcohol kills brain cells.

    • neuropathy
    • impaired gait

    While drinking in excess can be a problem for anyone, there are two groups most susceptible to memory loss caused by excess drinking  young adults and seniors.

    Alcoholism Is Defined By A Dependence On Alcohol And Rules For Alcoholism Are Useless

    Some people subscribe to arbitrary rules as a way to monitor whether someone is an alcoholic. This is flawed. For example, some individuals think that if you never drink alone, you cannot be an alcoholic, and if you do drink alone, you are. The truth is, neither indicates the presence or absence of a drinking problem. There are many different stages of alcoholism, and many alcoholics can be polysubstance abusers. Similarly, the type of alcohol you drink does not really matter. Abstaining from hard liquor or drinking hard liquor is not part of the criteria for determining if you are an alcoholic. All that matters is if the drink contains alcohol or not, regardless of whether it is wine, beer, or liquor. If it is affecting your life, and/or if you cannot refrain from drinking without distress, then you have a problem with alcohol. If you are concerned about your drinking , you should investigate further. You can either consult a professional or take one of the many online assessments to determine whether or not you are abusing alcohol.

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