Part 1: Alcohol & Health – Helping you to think before you drink

It’s sometimes hard to think about the health impacts of drinking, especially when you’re younger but there are real consequences, both positive and negative, associated with drinking alcohol and we they are not all things that kick in when you “get old”. That’s why this month, we’ve teamed up with the experts to give you some trusted advice that will help you to make good decisions now and protect your health for the long term.

Let’s start with the one fact you need to know to make smart drinking choices:

A healthy human being can only process one standard drink (10g of pure alcohol) per hour and there is no way to speed that process up. Regardless of who you are – young, old, big, small, Asian or Pakeha the liver is the liver, and it is largely the same in all of us

Note: 1 standard drink is not always 1 glass, can or bottle. It depends on what you are drinking so read the label and get to know what a standard drink looks like for your favourite beverage here . You can also find our Standard Drink Calculator here or practice pouring drinks here.

What actually happens when you drink alcohol?

Before we look at the long-term health impacts of drinking alcohol, it is important to understand exactly what happens in your body every time you drink.

When you drink, the alcohol is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and intestine into the bloodstream, meaning most of us will feel some affect from the alcohol within about 5 minutes. The alcohol in our blood is then broken down by the liver at a rate of 10gms of pure alcohol – which is the equivalent of 1 standard drink. Our “What’s going on inside” article  provides you with the full details of this Tiki Tour around the body but here are the basics you need to know:

  • When you start consuming more than 1 standard drink per hour, you will begin to experience the stimulatory effects of alcohol – you might feel yourself unwinding, become less inhibited and potentially more excitable than normal
  • That’s because the excess alcohol slows your heart rate and you pump out slightly less blood. This causes your blood vessels all over your body relax.
  • If the liver is still processing a backlog of alcohol, the next stop on the journey will be your lungs and you will get “boozy breath” every time you exhale
  • When the liver is still maxed out, your blood will start sending tiny amounts of excess alcohol out through the pores of your skin and your perspiration smells of alcohol
  • As you drink more, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises and the stimulation alcohol may have given you earlier will shift to sedation. It starts to slow the transmission of impulses between the nerve cells that control your ability to think and move which is why your thinking may get fuzzy, your judgement impaired and your tongue twisted.

This cycle continues as long as you have alcohol circulating in your blood or in other words until your liver can produce enough of the enzyme ADH (Alcohol de-hydrogenase) to metabolize all the alcohol you have consumed.

How long does it take to process each drink?

Remember – a healthy human being can only process (metabolize) one standard drink (10g of pure alcohol) per hour 1 and there is no way to speed that process up. Therefore, the answer to this “How long” question ultimately depends on the size of the drink in your hand but here is a rough guide of how long it takes to process a few common drink choices:

  • 2 standard glasses of wine – 2 hours to process
  • A dozen 5% beers on Friday night – 15.6 hours to process
  • Half a bottle of red wine – 4.15 hours to process
  • A couple of ciders – 3 hours to process
  • A cocktail – 2 hours to process


Spoiler Alert – The above is referring to standard drinks NOT glasses, cans or bottles. The label on every bottle of alcohol sold in NZ will tell you how many standard drinks it contains so educate yourself before you drink and stop kidding yourself it was just 1 wine when the glass took half a bottle! You can find out more on standard drinks in Module 1 of our Online tool

How does drinking impact my health?

As you can see, when we drink the alcohol touches every vital organ in the body and in doing so has the ability to impact our health on a number of levels. Information and research in this alcohol/health space is changing at a rapid rate which is great – the more we know the smarter our drinking choices can be.


There is evidence of a relationship between drinking alcohol and developing some diseases but low to moderate drinking is also associated with certain health benefits. Here is what the evidence tells us:

  • Light to moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, higher drinking levels have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Drinking alcohol is associated with an increased risk of cancers such as breast, liver, colorectal, head and neck. There is more on breast cancer here and here
  • Consuming alcohol is linked with an increased risk of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety in some people, but a reduced risk of dementia in older people consuming between 1-4 standard drinks a day.
NOTE: The above information is a general guide only. Speak to your health care professional with any concerns or for advice on your specific circumstances.


For more Alcohol and health information click here or you can check out Module 2 of our online programme.

Health impacts aside, alcohol consumption can also impact personal relationships, work capabilities and sleep quality, which in turn affects your overall wellbeing and quality of life so in Part 2 of this Alcohol & Health series we will take a look at how much is too much when it comes to drinking alcohol.

Until then – drink smart. Your brain and body will thank you for it.

The Alcohol&Me Team