What Happens When you Drink Alcohol On An Empty Stomach

Have you ever wondered what happens in your body after drinking alcohol on an empty stomach? Discover the main side effects in this article.
What Happens When you Drink Alcohol On An Empty Stomach

Last update: 20 February, 2021

Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach is something that everyone does at some point, whether it’s after work, on an evening with friends, or some other situation. But is it safe to do this? Are there consequences for this type of intake if you haven’t eaten? We tell you!

In general, the consumption of alcoholic drinks is accepted in society. Still, the World Health Organisation reports that every year there are 3 million deaths worldwide due to the consumption of alcoholic beverages. It’s even a risk factor for more than 200 diseases.

How does the body absorb alcohol?

The process of absorbing alcohol begins with its consumption by mouth. As this substance has a low molecular weight, it passes easily through the cell membranes and from there into the blood vessels. Therefore, the mouth, esophagus, and stomach can absorb tiny amounts.

Once the alcohol reaches the stomach, this organ absorbs 15 to 20 %. Then the substance passes into the small intestine, which is where the main absorption takes place. This process then continues in the first and second portions of the intestine (duodenum and jejunum) by 80%. Finally, the last bit of absorption takes place in the colon.

Friends toasting with alcohol in a bar.
The World Health Organization warns that no amount of alcohol is safe for health.

Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach: how does food help or affect its absorption?

The absorption of ethanol in the duodenum and jejunum is faster than in the stomach. For this reason, the speed of gastric emptying is an important determinant of the speed of absorption of the alcohol a person ingests.

Concerning this, science shows that the capacity to absorb this substance increases with an empty stomach and decreases when the stomach has food. This is because the contact surface decreases (as Fick’s Law indicates) and gastric emptying slow down.

However, fatty foods would be the exception to this rule, as they affect the motility of the stomach differently from other nutrients. In particular, they increase movement and make alcohol reach the blood faster.

Fortunately, foods containing carbohydrates and proteins cause absorption to be slow and the concentration of alcohol in the blood to drop by up to 25%.

Consequently, drinking alcohol on an empty stomach will lead to higher plasma ethanol concentrations and increased toxic effects.

Alcohol content and absorption in the body

On the other hand, absorption increases when the drink in question has an alcohol content of 20% to 35%, as these do not produce powerful muscular movements compared with drinks with an alcohol content above this value.

Similarly, the absorption of ethanol also increases if a person swallows a large quantity at once, but not if they swallow several times in small quantities.

General effects of alcohol on the body

Like everything we ingest, the liver is the organ responsible for metabolizing ethanol, as it transforms this substance into acetaldehyde and then acetic acid. Also, the body excretes the remaining 5 to 10 % of urine, sweat, and breathing.

However, while ethanol is still present in the blood, it affects the nervous system. This is why we experience classic symptoms such as the following:

  • Feeling of being uninhibited
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of coordination

It’s important to note that high doses of alcohol can cause intoxication, which includes other symptoms such as the following:

  • Nausea, retching, and vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Sudden loss of coordination
  • Slow or abnormal breathing
  • Difficulty in speaking
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Fainting

Alcohol in women

Also, it’s important to note that women tend to have a lower body mass than men. Also, they have a higher percentage of fat and a lower expression of the enzyme “acetaldehyde dehydrogenase” (responsible for forming acetic acid) in the gastric mucosa.

For these three reasons, women tend to become more inebriated than men when they drink the same amount of alcohol.

Alcohol in pregnant women

When pregnant women ingest ethanol, it passes through the placenta from the mother’s blood to the fetus. Thus, babies are exposed to the same levels of blood alcohol as their mothers, which can lead to various severe complications.

Prevention and recommendations

When it comes to health care, the best thing to do is to avoid alcohol consumption. However, if you do drink, especially on an empty stomach, it’s worth considering the following:

  • Choose a drink with low alcohol content.
  • Drink water or other non-alcoholic liquids, in between sips of your drink with ethanol.
  • Try to drink slowly over a long period of time, rather than large volumes in a short time.
  • Eat a meal an hour before drinking alcohol.
A man who's drinking alcohol and feeling stressed.
Drinking alcoholic beverages on an empty stomach accelerates their absorption and accentuates their harmful effects.

How can I feel better after drinking alcohol on an empty stomach?

Drinking on an empty stomach increases the risk of the famous side effect known as a ‘hangover’. This usually happens the next day after drinking a lot of alcohol or drinking something with significant alcohol content.’

Symptoms may include the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Decreased ability to concentrate or think clearly
  • Headaches
  • Alterations in mood
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Stomach discomfort

While these problems can be solved on their own, you can consider the following tips to help reduce them:

  • Drink water, soup broths, or fruit juices throughout the day
  • Sleep
  • Eat easily digestible foods, such as toast, crackers, and gelatin, among others
  • Take painkillers, such as ibuprofen, to relieve headaches

You may be interested in: Ten Healthy Foods to Regulate Digestion

It’s never good to drink alcohol on an empty stomach

Alcohol is a substance that is in itself harmful to health since its excessive consumption is associated with the development of diseases.

When consumed on an empty stomach, it can have a greater impact on the body due to its rapid absorption. Thus, since ethanol reaches the bloodstream earlier, it causes its classic effects and a greater risk of intoxication.

To prevent this from happening, it’s advisable to eat some food before drinking this type of drink. At the same time, it’s ideal to drink plenty of water and avoid excesses. The best way to ensure that it doesn’t affect your health is to avoid it completely.

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