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How Long Does It Take Alcohol To Leave The Body

by Annabel Caldwell
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How Long Does It Take Alcohol To Leave The Body

How Long Does It Take Alcohol To Leave The Body

The half-life of alcohol is four to five hours. A half-life is how long it takes for your body to get rid of half of it. But you need about five half-lives to get rid of alcohol completely. So, it takes about 25 hours for your body to clear all the alcohol.

We’ve known that alcohol isn’t good for us since at least 2000 B.C., when Homer wrote in his epic “Odyssey”: “For wine, they say, is a cordial drink; but he who drinks much of it falls into slumber and loaths both food and sleep.”
Alcohol’s not so bad when we’re young or even if we have one glass a day (but don’t try drinking every day), because our bodies can handle the amount easily. However, as we age — especially after hitting 30 — we start to feel the effects more often. And over time, alcohol becomes a major health risk. Drinking too much alcohol has been linked with cancer, heart disease, liver problems, pancreatitis and high blood pressure.
So what happens to alcohol once it hits our bloodstream? How quickly does it leave our system? We know that most of the alcohol gets absorbed by the small intestine, where it is metabolized by enzymes. From there, it travels through the blood stream to the liver, then eventually exits out of the body via urine. The half-life of alcohol is four to five hours. That means that it takes your body roughly 4-5 hours to get rid of half of the alcohol you consume. So, it takes about 5 half-lives to totally flush all the alcohol from your system.
But what exactly is a half-life? According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a half-life is defined as the average number of biological reactions taking place during this period. In other words, it’s the average length of time it takes for something to be reduced to half its original size. For example, if you eat a banana, it will take approximately six half-lives before it starts to break down into glucose.
In addition to being used as an easy way to calculate how many times something needs to happen (to reach zero) before it disappears, half-lives are also important for determining how long different substances stay in our systems. One common term scientists use when describing the rate at which a substance leaves your body is called clearance. Clearance is simply the product of volume of distribution (which measures how widely distributed a substance is throughout the body) and elimination constant (which describes how fast the substance leaves the body). If you know these two factors, you can determine how long it’ll take a certain drug to exit your body.
Now let’s look at some examples of how half-lives work.
Half-Life Example 1: Water
Water is essential to life. Our bodies depend on water for everything from flushing waste products out of cells to transporting nutrients between organs and cells. Without water, our cells would shrivel up like prunes. On top of that, we need water to maintain healthy skin and hair, regulate body temperature and help our digestive system function properly. Water makes up 65 percent of human weight, so you can see why it plays such an important role in daily life.
A typical adult male’s body contains about 60 gallons (227 liters) of water. Each morning, the man consumes about 2 gallons (7.6 liters) of water just to wake up. He may continue consuming water throughout the day to keep his fluid levels balanced. After dinner, another gallon (3.8 liters) or so is usually needed to digest his meal. By bedtime, the man should replace any remaining water lost during the day.
You might think that once the man goes to bed, he’d stop losing water. But no matter how tired he feels, he still needs to replace the water he loses while sleeping. Why? Because our bodies actually produce water as part of their normal functions. This process occurs inside the kidneys’ nephrons, which filter blood plasma to form urine. When you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you aren’t urinating out excess sodium, potassium or calcium. You’re peeing out water molecules produced by your body.
When you’re thirsty, your body sends signals to stimulate the release of water-rich saliva from salivary glands near your mouth. Saliva contains mostly water — about 90 percent — and acts as a lubricant. Once the saliva reaches your mouth, it mixes with sugar, starch and proteins in foods to create a thick, sticky paste that you swallow.
Saliva production is controlled by hormones, specifically vasopressin, oxytocin and adrenalin. Vasopressin increases the amount of salt dissolved in the blood, causing water reabsorption in the kidneys. Oxytocin stimulates contraction of the smooth muscles surrounding the ducts leading from the salivary glands to the mouths of the nerves. Adrenalin causes vasoconstriction, narrowing the arteries leading to the salivary glands. Together, these three chemicals cause the release of stored water in the saliva glands.
If the hormone levels were set incorrectly, though, the amount of water released could be less than required to quench thirst. What do you suppose happens if someone doesn’t drink enough water? Find out next.
Half-Life Example 2: Alcohol
Most people recognize that alcohol affects them differently than how it affects others. Some drinkers become tipsy quicker than others. Others build tolerance and require more alcohol to achieve intoxication. Still others have no problem getting drunk at all.
What’s interesting about alcohol is that unlike water, it doesn’t naturally occur in our bodies. Instead, alcohol must be manufactured by fermenting sugars. As a result, alcohol is eliminated from the body very slowly. According to Dr. Peter Rabinoff, director of the Center for Research on Substance Abuse at Columbia University Medical Center:
“It’s estimated that for each alcoholic beverage consumed, only 0.0001 milligrams of ethanol [alcohol] enters the bloodstream,” says Rabinoff. “[That’s] less than one-millionth of a gram! Even under ideal conditions, where the stomach empties rapidly, and the liver releases pure alcohol directly into the portal vein, less than.001 percent of the ingested alcohol gets into the general circulation.”
And it’s not just alcohol that stays in our systems longer than necessary. Tobacco smoke lingers in our lungs for upwards of 40 years.
So how come alcohol doesn’t evaporate faster? Partly because alcohol is fat-soluble. Unlike nicotine, which is water soluble, alcohol dissolves in fatty tissues like fat found in the liver and intestines. Since alcohol is heavier than water, it sinks deeper into tissue and remains there until it’s flushed out of the body. Another reason alcohol stays around longer is due to its metabolism. Although alcohol is filtered out by the kidneys, it’s absorbed back into the bloodstream later via the GI tract. Once it returns to the bloodstream, it’s broken down once again by enzymes in the liver.
One final point on alcohol’s half-life: While it takes about five half-lives to eliminate alcohol completely, that doesn’t mean you need several days to recover. Your body gradually reduces the level of alcohol in your blood until the concentration drops below 0.08 g/dl, which is the legal limit for driving in most states. At that point, symptoms associated with drunkenness disappear.
On the next page, learn how alcohol is treated in wastewater treatment plants.
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Wastewater Treatment Plants
Once alcohol passes through the liver and into the blood, it’s carried to the rest of the body via the circulatory system. Throughout the entire journey, alcohol is exposed to oxygen. As a result, the alcohol turns into acetaldehyde. Eventually, the acetaldehyde breaks down into acetic acid and carbon dioxide. Acetaldehyde is toxic, however, and it can damage the pancreas, central nervous system and red blood cells. Once the alcohol is metabolized, it’s passed along to the kidneys, which remove toxins and waste products from the blood. Then, the processed blood is returned to the body.
Although treating wastewater containing alcohol isn’t difficult, it does present challenges for sewage treatment facilities. Most facilities employ adsorption processes, which involve using activated charcoal to remove organic contaminants from liquids. Activated charcoal removes alcohol from water, meaning that treatment plants don’t have to worry about handling large amounts of liquid. In fact, one facility in Germany treats more than 200 tons (180 metric tons) of waste per year.
Another method employed by treatment plants is distillation. Distillation involves boiling off alcohol and collecting the vapor. The vapor condenses onto cooling coils. Once the alcohol dries, it can be recycled back into the reaction vessel.
Yet another method of removing alcohol from water is reverse osmosis. With reverse osmosis, water flows across semi-permeable membranes, allowing smaller particles to pass through while larger ones remain behind. The alcohol molecules are bigger than most impurities and cannot fit through the membrane pores. Therefore, the alcohol is trapped in the retentate. Unfortunately, the cost of purchasing equipment and operating costs make this type of technology impractical for widespread application.
Even though treatment plants have developed ways to combat alcohol’s lingering effect on our bodies, it’s still illegal to manufacture alcohol without meeting federal guidelines. Laws governing manufacturing vary from state to state, but essentially producers are expected to ensure that the safety standards are met.

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