What we call alcohol in everyday life is a substance whose chemical name is ethanol. It is one member of a family of substances called alcohols, which have a C-OH functional group in their structure. The simplest alcohol with the lowest carbon number is methanol (frequently used as fuel in racecars). Ethanol (the alcohol we drink in everyday life) is a colorless liquid that boils at 78°C and is easily soluble in water. Because alcohol is more volatile than water, a water-ethanol mixture can be purified up to 96% by distillation. Alcohol is a direct source of energy for the body, similar to carbohydrates. In nature, alcohol is made from glucose through a process called fermentation, whereby cells release energy under anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions

Alcohol and our body

Alcohol is a direct source of energy for the body (7 kcal/ 29 kjoule per gram), which is quickly and completely absorbed by the body. The stomach absorbs about 20% of the alcohol; the small intestines account for the other 80%. When ingested on an empty stomach, alcohol is absorbed into the blood in 30 minutes and distributed throughout the body and into the liver. When ingested on a full stomach however, this may take up to 2 or 3 hours, especially when the meal contains foods rich in proteins. 2 to 3% of the alcohol in the blood is expired from the lungs in the breath (hence the breath alcohol testing instrument). 

Alcohol and energy

The liver converts alcohol into components that cannot be stored by the body, and therefore must be metabolized immediately. When alcohol is ‘available’, the body stops metabolizing and utilizing protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Alcohol is high in energy content and contains 7 kcal of energy per gram (compared to 4 kcal in carbohydrates). Because our body starts to convert alcohol into energy immediately, other processes including the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and the digestion of proteins, become suppressed.

Alcohol is highly fattening because it is high in calories and because it halts fat burning while activating fat production and storage in the body (usually the abdominal region, hence the beer belly …). The liver cells can process only a certain amount of alcohol per hour. If you drink alcohol faster than your liver can deal with it, you can develop serious liver conditions such as liver cirrhosis: scarring of the liver whereby scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue and blocks the normal flow of blood through the liver.

The amount of alcohol the liver can process depends on the availability and activity of the specific enzyme complex ADH (Alcohol DeHydrogenases). In humans, ADH serves to break down alcohol produced by our own body during the degradation of carbohydrates or by the gut's biota. The enzyme capacity of ADH in an adult body is 8 gram of alcohol per hour. If one milliliter of alcohol weighs 0.8 gram, this comes down to one pint of beer. If we drink our pint of beer on an empty stomach, the alcohol is absorbed in 30 minutes and degraded completely after one hour. Another half hour later, the blood will no longer show any traces of alcohol.

If you drink 12 pints of beer or two bottles of wine after a normal meal, it will take at least 12 hours before all the alcohol is cleaned out of your system.

When you drive to work the next morning, the alcohol level in your blood is still dangerously high and most likely higher than the legal limits for drivers (0.05 % – 0.12 % = 0.05 g – 0.12 g alcohol in 100 ml blood, differs per US State).

A person is said to suffer from intoxication when the alcohol level in his blood is between 0.05 and 0.1 percent. In small doses, alcohol causes euphoria because of its effects on the central nervous system (CNS). It releases inhibitions and tensions, makes us cheerful, chatty, eloquent and happy. When the alcohol level in the blood is above 0.2 percent, we are said to be truly drunk. Major characteristics are impaired coordination, slurred speech, blurred vision and even aggressive behavior. An alcohol level in the blood exceeding 0.4 percent can cause death.

Blood Alcohol Content (BAC)

Blood alcohol content is expressed as the percentage of alcohol (as ethanol) in your blood. A BAC of 0.10 means that 0.10 percent of your blood is alcohol. The more you drink, the higher the percentage of your blood is alcohol. Your BAC increases.

BAC (% v/v) =D

0.454 x W x R
-(H - 0.5) x (W x 0.0009)


D = number of drinks
W = weight in pounds
R = metabolic rate factor for male 0.7, for female 0.5
H = drinking period in hours

Important Note: There is no blood alcohol calculator that is 100 % accurate because of the number of factors that come into play regarding the consumption and reduction rates of each individual person. Factors like gender, weight and amount of body fat, different metabolic rates, health and amount of food in the stomach. The above formula gives you a rough estimation of the BAC level based on known input. Don’t use the BAC calculator to decide if it is still safe to drive. Don’t drink and drive!

Calculate my blood alcohol content

Alcohol, cholesterol and cancer

Recent research among people of 45 years and older has indicated that the consumption of two to three glasses of alcohol per day could have protective effects against cardiovascular disease. It would appear that moderate consumption of alcohol increases the HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) levels in the blood. Consumption of more than 3 glasses of alcohol per day on the contrary, is associated with an increased risk of a number of cancers. Research has shown a dose-dependent association between alcohol and cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx and esophagus. Alcohol is also clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer in women who drink to excess.

Guideline on healthy eating and alcohol

The National Health Council issued a guideline that recommends moderate alcohol consumption (1 – 2 units for men and 1 unit for women daily) as part of a healthy food pattern, but not to exceed 3 – 4 units/day. The National Health Council advises this quantity in order to obtain the maximum positive health effect (lowest possible mortality risk) and to reduce the risk of habituation or dependence.

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