Cheap drunk vs. blood alcohol level
April 21, 2011 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Ok I admit it, I’m a cheap drunk, a lightweight. One beer, one glass of wine, and I’m feeling good. Any more than that, even another half a beer or half a glass of wine, and I’m starting to get buzzed. So I’ve always been very careful with my drinking. I’ve never been stopped for suspected DUI, and don’t plan to be. That said, I’m curious about whether my blood alcohol level actually increases more quickly than most people, or do I just feel the effects of the alcohol more quickly without my blood alcohol level rising very much. IOW, over a period of an hour, you drink two beers, you’re not drunk, and your blood alcohol level is below the legal limit. I drink two beers in an hour, I’m pretty buzzed, enough that I would not drive. Is my blood alcohol level probably over the legal limit? If it matters, I’m a fairly normal-sized adult female, 5’5”, 120 lbs.
posted by Dolley to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If I understand correctly, everyone's blood alcohol level rises at the same rate (all other factors like size controlled), but .08 is going to feel a lot different to a lightweight vs. how it will feel to someone with a high tolerance for alcohol.

And you could potentially be over the legal limit... there are lots of calculators that will estimate bac based on size, what you drank, and how fast you drank it.
posted by geegollygosh at 9:43 AM on April 21, 2011

According to what I read recently in this book, blood alcohol level corresponds (in a general sense) to level of drunkenness on a consistent basis person-to-person, but more experienced drinkers metabolize better and faster (and bigger people spread it out in their body more, or whatever). In general, though, .08 BAC feels the same for everyone (with variation, obviously), and you're just getting there faster.
posted by brainmouse at 9:46 AM on April 21, 2011

According to BAC calculators, you're between .03 and .09 depending on whether you had two pints of regular beer or two bottles of light beer; you'd likely feel it in any case. Some people metabolize alcohol more quickly and what you have in your stomach beforehand is also an indicator of how buzzed you'll feel. That said there are some genetic apects to alcohol absorption (wonky paper here) which come in to play but the BAC calculators are handy tools to keep around.
posted by jessamyn at 9:47 AM on April 21, 2011

The only way to be sure is to do an experiment. Consume a series of standard drinks on an empty stomach (three or four should be sufficient) and measure your BAC by blood test shortly after consuming each one. If your doctor works in a clinic or hospital that can do the blood tests, they may be willing to do this for you, though it would be a bit expensive.

If you're just idly curious you could buy a home breathalyzer (AlcoHawk makes a bunch) and perform a similar experiment, but they won't be as accurate as the blood test.
posted by jedicus at 9:50 AM on April 21, 2011

A couple of things here.

First of all, intoxication is not solely a factor of BAC, though it must be said that you've got a few things going against you on the BAC front. More on that later. But it sounds like you don't drink all that often, nor all that much. The body does build up a tolerance for the effects of alcohol, but this takes time and, well, booze, to build up. It is not the case that the same BAC feels the same to everyone. A chronic alcoholic will be able to drink a same-sized non-drinker under the table every single time. If you're sticking to one, maybe two drinks, you aren't going to build up much of a tolerance, especially if you don't do it all that often.

Note that just because you stay functional longer doesn't mean that you're any less of a risk on the road or any less subject to criminal penalties for blowing that 0.07. The law doesn't really care how well you subjectively handle alcohol.

But second, you're a fairly petite-sounding girl. This is "bad" because 1) smaller people will have a higher resulting BAC than larger people given the same amount of alcohol, and 2) a woman will have a higher resulting BAC than a man of equal weight given the same amount of alcohol. One drink could easily put you at 0.04 after an hour, and two could send you to 0.08. I, on the other hand, as a 200 pound man, would need two drinks to get me to 0.04 and four to get me to 0.08.*

So if you're looking to be able to drink more, I see two main ways of doing it. The first is to gain a bunch of weight. Can't say I recommend that one. The second is to significantly ramp up your alcohol consumption. If you do this in terms of frequency, i.e. drink more nights per week, than in terms of volume, i.e. drinking more at one sitting, this could potentially work without posing any health or safety risks. But it's no guarantee and could get pricey.

I think the long and short of it is that small women, on average, just can't drink as much as the rest of us.

*According to the table, which is obviously an average.
posted by valkyryn at 9:56 AM on April 21, 2011

Anecdotes: I'm not a small guy (6' 2", 215 lb), and even on a full stomach, one beer or a glass of wine can make me feel all warm and happy. I'm a big ol' whitey, and I've seen tiny white ladies drink burly dudes under the table. But I wouldn't want either of them driving me home, no matter how sober they seemed after 4 or more beers.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:27 AM on April 21, 2011

If I understand correctly, everyone's blood alcohol level rises at the same rate (all other factors like size controlled)

That isn't true. There is considerable variability in rates of absorption and elimination of alcohol in human subjects. Much of the variability is due to genetic and environmental factors including gender, body composition, food consumption, liver volume, genetic polymorphisms and ethnicity. Other factors include the nature of the alcoholic beverage.

In an individual, the degree and speed of absorption from the small intestine may depend on the dosage form, concentration of alcohol in the beverage, drinking pattern, amount and kind of food in the stomach, and even the time of day.

That said, people who drink on an empty stomach will typically be absorbed within 15 minutes to two and a half hours. If the booze is consumed with food, the range typically increases to between 30 minutes and three hours. Any substance in the stomach can act like a sponge, delaying alcohol's movement into the small intestine where most of the absorption occurs.

Whether a person is "impaired" also depends on factors like time of day, tolerance (especially acute tolerance), hangover, the environment, etc. Everyone has varying degrees of response to the effects of alcohol consumption, but generally effects will increase as blood alcohol concentration increases, but it isn't always linear for all subjects. (E.g., your reaction times may not be twice as impaired at .10% as at .05%.) .10% is really the demarcation line at which almost all behavioral skills are impaired by alcohol. Between .06% and .10% is a twilight area, though most people will be impaired for driving at .08%.

OP would be wise to surrender her keys well before feeling the effects of alcohol, especially since she may not be aware of how long her body may continue to absorb alcohol. By the time OP feels the buzz, she's probably over .08%.
posted by Hylas at 10:31 AM on April 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

These answers are interesting; thank you for responding.

Hylas, rest assured I am very careful. I never drink more than one glass of wine or one beer when I'm out, and very rarely more than that at home. I don't like being drunk. And I wait at least an hour after finishing a drink before I drive. I'm not interested in being a statistic on either side of a drunk driving tragedy.
posted by Dolley at 1:11 PM on April 21, 2011

There are physiological differences between men and women that lead to more alcohol getting into women's bloodstreams faster - one is that women have different stomach enzymes. (I am guessing that there can also be differences among individuals in the same way, so that one woman might have a lesser tolerance than others because of lower enzyme levels.)

Here's a page on Alcohol metabolism from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (No. 35; PH 371 January 1997). It has a bunch of references to scientific papers supporting each claim made in the snippet here:
Factors Influencing Alcohol Absorption and Metabolism

Gender. Women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently from men. They have higher BAC's after consuming the same amount of alcohol as men and are more susceptible to alcoholic liver disease, heart muscle damage (8), and brain damage (9). The difference in BAC's between women and men has been attributed to women's smaller amount of body water, likened to dropping the same amount of alcohol into a smaller pail of water (10). An additional factor contributing to the difference in BAC's may be that women have lower activity of the alcohol metabolizing enzyme ADH in the stomach, causing a larger proportion of the ingested alcohol to reach the blood. The combination of these factors may render women more vulnerable than men to alcohol-induced liver and heart damage (11-16).
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:38 PM on April 21, 2011

You're not alone. As Dorothy Parker wrote:

I wish I could drink like a lady.
I can take one or two at the most.
Three and I'm under the table.
Four and I'm under the host.

You can accustom yourself to drinking. When I was in the army, I killed a liter of scotch over a weekend. Now I (male, 250 lb.) get an unpleasant buzz from two glasses of wine.

Find the amount of alcohol that makes you feel relaxed. When you reach that point, switch to ginger ale.
posted by KRS at 3:53 PM on April 21, 2011

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