alcohol metabolism

Whether you wind down after work with a glass of wine or enjoy happy hour with friends, having a cocktail (or two!) is a great way to relax at the end of the day. Oftentimes, though, having even just a few alcoholic beverages can lead to some consequences the next morning. We’re all familiar with those “rough feelings” after drinking. But why do we wake up feeling this way?

To understand the culprit responsible for those rough mornings after drinking, it’s important to first take a look at the science behind how your body breaks down and processes alcohol. Here’s what you need to know about alcohol metabolism:

How Your Body Manages Alcohol

When you drink an alcoholic beverage, your stomach absorbs nearly 20% of the alcohol through its lining (citation). The rest enters your intestines, and most of this is absorbed through the intestinal lining. A small amount is absorbed into the bloodstream, which then circulates throughout your body and produces side effects associated with alcohol like a “buzz.” Finally, your liver breaks down the rest of the alcohol into acetate.

When alcohol enters the liver, it is broken down into two different chemicals: acetaldehyde and acetate. First, an enzyme called “alcohol dehydrogenase” removes two electrons and two hydrogen atoms to create acetaldehyde – the byproduct responsible for “rough feelings” the morning after drinking. Then, a second enzyme called “acetaldehyde dehydrogenase” removes an additional pair of electrons and one hydrogen atom to create acetate. Unlike acetaldehyde, acetate is a harmless molecule similar to vinegar.

The gut may also break down some of the alcohol before it reaches the liver (citation). Your gut contains certain microbes that produce alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes, and while these can’t break down alcohol into acetate, they can address the first step in this process (citation).

Key Factors Impacting Alcohol Metabolism

Alcohol metabolism is the process by which the body breaks down and eliminates alcohol. One factor that can influence alcohol metabolism is the amount of food in your stomach (citation). When alcohol enters your stomach, it may be absorbed more slowly if you have recently eaten a large meal. This also means alcohol will move more slowly through your intestines. Body weight, blood alcohol content (BAC), and any medications you may be taking can also affect how quickly your body processes alcohol.

While almost all of the acetaldehyde chemicals are converted into acetate in the liver, there are cases when this does not occur. For those with an acetaldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency, which affects roughly eight percent of the population, your liver will not immediately break down the acetaldehyde into acetate (citation).

Another key factor that impacts alcohol metabolism is genetic variation. Genetic differences can influence how effectively enzymes involved in alcohol metabolism work. For instance, variations in the genes encoding alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) enzymes can affect the speed at which alcohol is metabolized. People with certain genetic variations may metabolize alcohol more quickly or slowly than others, affecting their tolerance and susceptibility to alcohol-related issues (citation).

How to Drink Responsible and Wake Up Refreshed

Alcohol can result in a range of next-day side effects, but there are still plenty of ways to drink responsibly and wake up feeling refreshed the next day. The following tips can prevent overconsumption and rough mornings the day after drinking:

  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Alcohol moves through the body more slowly when you have food in your stomach. If you eat before drinking, your liver can process the alcohol more efficiently.
  • Plan ahead. We all get caught up in the moment. Sometimes, you may wish to drink more than you had originally planned. If this occurs, it’s important to be prepared. When it comes to happy hour, we recommend a “better safe than sorry” approach. Be prepared with a proactive drinking plan that provides science-backed, next-day insurance.
  • Drink plenty of water. We’re all familiar with the myth that claims alcohol causes dehydration. While this isn’t actually true, it’s still a good idea to drink water before, during, and after consuming alcohol. This can support your kidneys and liver functions while they work to break down alcohol, and water also helps space out your drinks.
  • Pace yourself. The faster you drink, the longer it takes for your liver to process the alcohol you consume. To prevent the side effects from increasing in severity and duration, pace yourself appropriately so your body doesn’t have to work overtime.
  • Try to go to bed sober and get plenty of rest. If possible, sober up a bit before you go to sleep. If you go straight from the bar to bed, this can result in poor sleep quality, leaving you feeling even more sluggish the next day.
  • Avoid mixing alcohol with caffeine. Combining alcohol with caffeinated beverages like energy drinks can mask the depressant effects of alcohol, leading you to drink more than you might otherwise. This can increase the likelihood of overconsumption and a rough morning after.
  • Choose lighter drinks. Darker alcoholic beverages, like red wine and whiskey, contain more congeners, which are byproducts of fermentation and can contribute to hangover symptoms. Opting for lighter drinks, such as vodka or white wine, can reduce the severity of next-day effects.

Drink Smarter: Real Science for Better Decisions

No matter how much you plan to drink, it’s crucial to always drink responsibly. Doing so will minimize the next-day effects, keep you safe and healthy, and ensure you have a great time! Understanding how alcohol actually affects your body can help you make the best decisions and set you up for success the next day.

By making informed choices based on scientific knowledge, you can protect your long-term health while still enjoying social occasions. It’s about finding a balance that allows you to partake in social drinking without compromising your overall well-being. Remember, moderation is key, and being mindful of your drinking habits today can lead to a healthier, more vibrant future.