A healthy adult being can only process one standard drink per hour. Anything more than this circulates around your body, through your blood, until your liver can catch up and process it.

While it is important to recognise the long-term health impacts of drinking alcohol, it is equally important to understand what happens in your body every time you drink.

When you drink, the alcohol flows directly through your body’s membranes into your bloodstream, which carries it to nearly every organ in your body. The average healthy adult takes 1 hour to process each standard drink and there is no way to speed that process up.

Once you have started consuming more than one standard drink an hour, you may start to experience the stimulatory effects of alcohol – you might feel more relaxed, less inhibited and more excitable.

Below is a quick 5 step summary of what’s going on inside every time you drink:


Step 1 – From mouth to stomach

Un- metabolized alcohol flows through your stomach walls, into your bloodstream and on to your small intestine.

Step 2 – Next stop, the liver

Most of the alcohol you drink is absorbed through the small intestine. From there it flows through a large blood vessel to the liver. In the liver, an enzyme called ADH processes (metabolizes) the alcohol. As mentioned above, a healthy adult liver can process 10gms of pure alcohol (that’s 1 standard drink) per hour. The rest flows on to your heart.

Step 3 – Heart, blood, breath

Entering your heart, alcohol reduces the force with which your heart muscle contracts. You pump out slightly less blood, blood vessels all over your body relax and your blood pressure goes down temporarily (usually for approx. 30mins).

The alcohol also makes your blood less likely to clot, temporarily reducing your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Meanwhile, alcohol in the blood from your heat flows through your pulmonary vein to your lungs. Now you breath out a tiny amount of alcohol every time you exhale, and your breath smells of alcohol.


Step 4 – Rising to the surface

With larger volumes of alcohol, your blood vessels expand so more warm blood flows up from the centre of your body to the surface of the skin. You feel warmer and, if your skin is fair, you may flush and turn pink.

At the same time, tiny amounts of alcohol ooze out through the pores of your skin and your perspiration smells of alcohol.

If you are prone to alcohol flushing, you will experience these effects earlier than someone who is not.

Step 5 – Brain drain

As you drink more, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises and the stimulation alcohol gave you earlier will shift to sedation.

When alcohol reaches your brain, it will slow the transmission of impulses between the nerve cells that control your ability to thing and move. That is why your thinking may get fuzzy, your judgement impaired, your tongue twisted and your muscles floppy.

Alcohol also reduces your brain’s production of antidiuretic hormones, so you need to urinate more often. As a result, you many lose lots of vitamins and minerals, get very thirsty and your urine will smell faintly of alcohol.

This cycle continues as long as you have alcohol circulating in your blood or in other words until your liver can produce enough ADH to metabolise all the alcohol you have consumed. As a rough guide this will be:

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 small cocktail = 1.5 hours to process


ADH – the magic enzyme:

Alcohol is processed in the body by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). The more ADH you produce, the less alcohol passes from your stomach into your blood and then around your body.

The amount of ADH your body makes is influenced by your gender and your ethnicity.

Asians, Native Americans and Inuit’s generally make less ADH than most Caucasians and as a result they are likely to feel the effects of alcohol more, even in small quantities. Woman (regardless of ethnicity) also have less of the enzyme ADH that breaks down alcohol in the stomach which contributes towards a higher BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) than males drinking the same amount of alcohol. As a result, they are likely to become tipsy on smaller amounts of alcohol.

To keep yourself safe and sociable when you drink, be aware of how much and how fast you drink. One an hour is a great rule of thumb for helping to make sure you remember the occasion for all the right reasons. If you want to find out more about how drinking impacts your long-term health click here otherwise check out our online modules or Standard Drink Calculator to help you drink smarter!

Alcohol&Me Team


  • Like all your vital organs, the human liver is not fully grown until you are in your mid to late 20’s therefore an adult liver refers to those over 25 years old.