You are another year older but are you another year wiser when it comes to alcohol?

Most adult New Zealanders enjoy a drink, but few know how much their body can actually handle, and how this changes with age. Research has shown the vast majority of New Zealanders aren’t as smart as they think when it comes to drinking alcohol so here are some interesting facts about how alcohol affects your body and mind over your lifetime.

First things first, it is important to know that a healthy adult liver can only process 10 grams of pure alcohol an hour – also known as 1 standard drink.  This simple fact is the single biggest key to drinking smarter regardless of how old you are. While the processing time for one standard drink is the same for all of us, your liver needs to be supported by the rest of your body to do its job effectively. That’s because alcohol that is waiting to be processed by your liver gets carried to other parts of your body, through your blood, while it waits its turn to be processed.

Yes we are all different and while it only takes some people a couple of drinks before they start feeling the effects vs 4 or more for others, there are a number of factors that can affect how your body reacts to alcohol and how you feel the effects of alcohol which we will explore in a bit more detail now:


Water helps to dilute alcohol so while it won’t stop you from getting drunk, it will help you to reduce the effects of the alcohol on your body and mind. Alcohol is a diuretic which is why you need to go to the toilet a lot when you drink, so keeping yourself hydrated before, during and after drinking is key to waking up without a headache!


Like water, eating will not stop you from getting drunk. If you drink more than 1 standard drink per hour you will feel the effects of the alcohol. That said, a full belly does help to slow down the absorption of alcohol in your body – it slows the rate at which the alcohol moves to the small intestine and then in to your bloodstream and liver so it will help you to feel the effects of the alcohol less.


Larger and heavier people have more body tissue to absorb alcohol, so they typically feel the effects of alcohol less BUT….

Body Fat

Individuals with a higher percentage of body fat will have a higher BAC (blood alcohol concentration) than those with less body fat. If you think about a roasting dish in the sink on a Sunday night – water and fat don’t mix. Neither do alcohol and fat so there are less places for the excess alcohol to go and it centres around our vital organs more which is why we feel the effects of alcohol more.

Good old biology means that females naturally tend to have a higher percentage of body fat than their male counterparts so typically feel the effects of alcohol more quickly.

On the flip side, muscle has a high-water content and we know from above that water helps to dilute alcohol so the musclier you are the less you will feel the effects of alcohol



Woman have less of the enzyme ADH that breaks down alcohol in the stomach, contributing towards a higher BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) than men drinking the same amount of alcohol.

Hormone levels also affect the body’s ability to process alcohol e.g. woman will experience higher BAC’s drinking the same amount of alcohol right before menstruation.


All medication needs to be processed by the liver so if you are drinking and taking medication, you are increasing the liver’s workload considerably.

Certain pain killers and cold medicine can make you feel the effects of alcohol up to 10 times as much as you normally would so be careful mixing alcohol with any medications.

Mental Health (Mood)

Stress emotions such as sadness, anger, anxiety and depression can change the enzymes in the stomach which in turn effect how we process alcohol.

Linked to medication above – if you are someone that takes anti depression medication or similar, and you haven’t already spoken to your GP about how this medicine works with alcohol then we suggest you do this ASAP.

It is important to remember that alcohol isn’t a superhero. It can’t make you happy if you are sad and vice versa. If at any time you find yourself using alcohol to cope with day to day life, you should seek expert help from your GP or health practitioner.

Functional Tolerance

Commonly described by many as “piss fitness” – functional tolerance is a decrease in the body’s sensitivity to alcohol. It is a behavioural adaptation that happens for some people when they drink lots and quite often. It may appear that your liver is handling the alcohol better but in reality your liver is just living in a heightened state of “go”. This is fine on occasion but long term it can result in physical dependency and alcohol related organ damage.


If you are tired before drinking, intoxication will intensify the symptoms. This occurs because when someone is fatigued, the liver is less efficient at processing and eliminating alcohol which leads to a higher BAC than normal.

So, what does all this mean for us as we age. Well here goes:

You’re only 20

  • Adolescents, whilst developing, have an increased sensitivity to alcohol. The human brain, like all your vital organs, is also not fully developed until you are in your mid to late 20’s so regular heavy consumption (i.e. more than 10 std drinks per week for woman, 15 std drink per week for men) may result in impaired brain development in adolescents and young adults.
  • Your liver is probably also still growing which means it may be a bit more “sluggish” than the healthy adult liver we refer to with the standard drink guidelines.
  • Younger people often have more muscle mass. Muscle has a high water content which means it can help absorb some of the excess alcohol in your system. This in turn lightens the load on your other vital organs as they babysit the alcohol while you wait for your liver to catch up.

You’ve hit the big four-Oh.

  • As you age, you naturally have less water in your system… yes like me you are shriveling like a raisin. Water has a dilution effect on the alcohol so with less water in your body there is a higher concentration of alcohol in your blood and you are likely to feel the effects of the alcohol more.
  • Our muscle mass also starts to decrease and is replaced by fat. Remember the roasting dish example above – alcohol and fat don’t mix so there are less places for the excess alcohol to go and it centres on our vital organs more which is why we may feel the effects of alcohol differently as we age.


You’re 60 or over

  • The above continues as we age.
  • Older people are also less tolerant to alcohol because as we age, we have less of the enzyme (ADH) that helps breaks down alcohol in our system.
  • Another watch out as we age is our general health as this can have a huge impact on how we feel the effects of alcohol. People with certain health conditions are at increased risk if they consume alcohol. It’s important to be aware that alcohol can also interact with many different medications, regardless of your age, as medication must also be processed by the liver. Your personal circumstances will determine how effectively your liver can do its job, so you are best to talk to your health professional before you mix alcohol with any medication.

Does this help to explain why “you can’t drink like you used to”? Because we’re all different, think about how many drinks it takes before you start to feel impacted by what you are drinking and if you want to find out more about what’s going on inside when you drink click here.

Regardless of age, the best way to make the good times last longer when you are drinking alcohol is to remember to eat well, keep count of your standard drinks, give your body time to process them, and have plenty of water to pace yourself and stay hydrated. Remember you don’t have to drink alcohol to have a good time – #youdrinkyou. Why not try one of the ever-increasing range of delicious adult non-alcohol options such as a kombucha, craft sodas and alcohol free equivalents like Lindauer Free etc.

For more smarter drinking tips, regardless of age, check out our Standard Drink Calculator and online modules here.

Alcohol&Me Team

P.S – Don’t forget, we are all unique – this is a general guide based on the average person. Speak to your healthcare professional with any concerns or for advice on your specific circumstances. 


  • 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.