Breaking down alcohol: the most important questions and answers

Alkohol abbauen: Die wichtigsten Fragen und Antworten

You probably know the fun evenings and nights when you're out with your friends and at one or the other party. Sometimes it's only 1-2 glasses and driving a car is no longer possible after just a little alcohol and is also punishable.

Other times it lasts until the early hours, you dance and celebrate. You often don't feel well the next day, even if you haven't drunk much. You feel dizzy, your head is pounding and your stomach is queasy.

In this post, we'll explain what happens in your body when you drink alcohol, how the chemical process of breaking down alcohol works, and whether or not there's anything you can do to speed up the process. Finally, we'll give you a few tips and tricks to help you cope better with your hangover.

the essentials in brief

  • Alcohol is classified as harmless, but it sometimes has a poisonous effect on the body and the body cells.
  • The breakdown of alcohol in your body can be compared to a chemical process. All organs have a specific function to break down alcohol, but the liver is the organ with the main function.
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol can cause the liver to stop working properly and therefore the breakdown of alcohol can take longer or not work properly at all.

Breaking down alcohol: what you should know

Alcohol affects your mood. Whether the effect is positive or negative is usually subjective and varies from person to person. Of course, you also want to party with your friends from time to time and drink alcohol at the same time.

So that you don't get poisoned by drinking too much alcohol, your body immediately starts breaking down the alcohol. In this case, your body and especially your liver is the most important organ for breaking down alcohol and therefore has a lot to do.

The more alcohol you've drunk, the longer it takes for the alcohol to break down and leave your body completely. Likewise, the process slows down if you consume regularly and excessively.

What happens in the body when you drink alcohol?

The ethanol (drinking alcohol) is absorbed through the entire digestive tract. The absorbed ethanol goes directly into the blood via the oral mucosa, finally reaches your brain and is thus distributed throughout the body.

Finally, together with the blood, it also reaches the liver, where most of the ethanol (approx. 80-90%) is broken down again. (1)

The intake is increased by various factors such as heat, sugar or carbonic acid. Fat slows down absorption somewhat. However, it only leads to a delay in recording, not to a reduction. (2.3)

When does alcohol breakdown start?

Alcohol breakdown begins once the ethanol has been distributed through the blood throughout your body. But if you keep drinking all the time, the breakdown of alcohol will of course be delayed.

different types of alcohol

Alcohol is broken down in the body in three stages. (Image source: Drew Beamer / unsplash)

You can remember the following: the faster you drink or the faster the alcohol gets into your blood, the faster the blood alcohol concentration rises and the faster you get drunk. So if you have a full meal before drinking, your stomach will be full and alcohol absorption will be delayed.

For example, if you drink on an empty stomach, the alcohol gets into your blood faster and you get drunk faster.

How does alcohol break down in the body?

Alcohol sometimes acts as a poison for your body or your body cells. An alcoholic drink usually contains not only ethanol, but also fusel oils or higher alcohols. These are even more toxic than drinking alcohol. Your body breaks down the ethanol first.

Therefore, the higher alcohols stay in your body longer and bring out their toxic effects. This creates the symptoms of a hangover the next day.

A small portion of the ethanol is excreted through the skin, kidneys and lungs. The remaining part of the ethanol is broken down on the one hand in the mucous membranes of the stomach and small intestine and on the other hand especially in the liver. (4)

Ethanol degradation occurs in three stages (5):

  • Stage 1: First, the ethanol is converted into acetaldehyde, which is very harmful to your body, using the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). (6) This is responsible for the well-known hangover the next day and often causes dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting.
  • Stage 2: The acetaldehyde is then converted to a less problematic acetic acid using the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH).
  • Stage 3: Finally, the acetic acid is converted to carbon dioxide and water with the help of several enzymes and then excreted in sweat, urine and breath.

In this case, the liver protects your body from dying and various enzymes (proteins) help it to do so. If your liver function is already somewhat disturbed, the breakdown can be delayed.

How much alcohol is broken down in what time?

As a rule of thumb, about 0.1 to 0.2 parts per thousand per kilogram of body weight are broken down every hour. However, this guide value is only an average value and can be different for each person.

Weight and gender play an important role. Most of the time, women weigh less than men. Because of this, women often take longer to break down alcohol than men.

However, it is generally independent of how much alcohol you have drunk. What counts above all is the quality of the alcohol and the function of your liver. The degradation rate cannot be accelerated by certain medications or sport. (2)

What promotes alcohol breakdown?

The liver definitely does the most work when it comes to breaking down alcohol. However, the breakdown of alcohol is promoted or guaranteed if you meet the following requirements:

  • Liver works fine
  • not overweight or underweight
  • no metabolic disorder
  • healthy eating

If you do not have one of the listed points, the optimal performance of the alcohol breakdown is not guaranteed.

Drunk man lying on the floor

There are various symptoms that can occur during the breakdown of alcohol. (Image source: thom masat / unsplash)

In addition, many people believe that some factors accelerate the breakdown of alcohol. However, many of these are just myths. (7) We did some research for you and picked out a few myths:

myth function Possible advantages or disadvantages
coffee or energy drinks They do not promote alcohol breakdown in the liver. Possibly robbing you of your precious sleep.
Much sleep While sleep is the best way to make the next day or time go by faster, it doesn't make your liver work faster. (8th) You may feel fit and think you can drive a car, but you still have residual alcohol in your blood and are therefore still impaired.
Sweat 80-90% of the breakdown of alcohol takes place in the liver and only a small part via the skin, therefore sport only contributes to a limited extent to the breakdown of alcohol. Sport activates the circulation and therefore helps you for your general well-being.

We also advise you to listen to your body the next day, it will tell you what it is ready for and what it is not.

Does exercise break down alcohol faster?

This is the question of all questions that many people ask themselves again and again. Sport is known to promote the function of the lungs, kidneys and skin, but not really the liver.

Around 90 percent of alcohol is broken down by the liver.

Since the degradation does not accelerate or only slightly, you should not do any extreme sports, since the alcohol is still in your body, the performance is not necessarily increased and the risk of accidents is therefore increased.

What home remedies are there and how effective are they in breaking down alcohol?

In general, the breakdown of alcohol by the resulting enzymes in your body is comparable to a chemical process.

2 cold water bottles

Alcohol removes water from your body. Therefore, always drink enough during this time so that you do not become dehydrated. (Image source: Greg Rosenke / unsplash)

Since alcohol is constantly removing water from your body, it is advisable to drink enough water while drinking or while partying. If you forget, make sure to drink plenty of water the next day.

Alcohol dehydrates your body.

Due to the increased fluid intake during the evening, you also have to go to the toilet more often. Therefore, many important minerals and vitamins are flushed out of your body. . So you should get those minerals and vitamins back in.

Your body also needs a lot of oxygen while breaking down alcohol. Get some fresh air to get your circulation going again.

What foods or medications help break down alcohol?

There are various foods or medications that can help temporarily or temporarily against a hangover. However, these do not promote or accelerate the breakdown of alcohol.

food or medicine function in the body
Water Replenishes your fluid balance in the body.
Soup The minerals are refueled by the salt content.
magnesium Simply as an effervescent tablet, magnesium helps to replenish your mineral balance in the body.
Painkiller Are analgesic and anti-inflammatory and thus help against headaches and body aches.

You just have to give your body enough time to break down all the alcohol in your body.

Are there people who cannot break down alcohol?

Yes! There is a so-called alcohol intolerance or alcohol intolerance. This means that the metabolism of alcohol does not work properly or is disturbed in those people due to various reasons. The causes can be the following:

  • Genetic: Not enough enzymes are produced in the body to break down alcohol.
  • Organ damage: Due to long, excessive consumption, liver damage can occur, for example, and the liver no longer functions properly and can therefore not break down alcohol properly. (9)
  • Chemical intolerance: Can occur if certain medications are taken before or during alcohol consumption. Find out about these medications early on from your doctor or pharmacist.

People with alcohol intolerance are mainly found in Asian countries. (10)

Alcohol intolerance becomes noticeable through various extremely pronounced symptoms, such as swelling and flushing of the face, headaches and circulatory problems, increased heart rate and stomach problems. Symptoms also occur in "normal" people during and after alcohol reduction, but not as severely and not as long-lasting.


Since the breakdown of alcohol can be compared to a chemical process in your body, there are unfortunately no factors that could speed up this process. Always be sure to stay hydrated while drinking alcohol to prevent dehydration, and it's best to keep the next day free to fully recover.

Alcohol should always be consumed in moderation and not too often or regularly. If you don't want to or can't do without alcohol completely, at least always think BEFORE the party how you're going to get home, because you definitely have to leave your car or bike behind.


  1. Seitz HK, Suter PM (2000) Alcohol. In: Adler G., Beglinger C., Manns MP, Müller-Lissner S., Schmiegel W. (eds) Clinical Gastroenterology and Metabolism. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  2. Roth, K (2007). The chemistry of hangovers: alcohol and its aftermath. Chemistry in Our Time, 41(1), 46–55. doi:10.1002/ciuz.200700409
  3. Kuntz E. (1985) Alcohol-related metabolic disorders Changes in liver cell metabolism Interactions with medication. In: Biology of Addiction. addiction problem. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  4. “alcohol” ethanol Prof. Dr. Peter Bützer, University of Education St.Gallen December 2009
  5. Nutritional Medicine and Dietetics: With the collaboration of Walter Burghardt and Heinrich Kasper ISBN 978-3-437-23006-6
  6. Teschke R., Hasumura Y., Lieber CS (1976) Degradation pathways of alcohol. In: Schlegel B. (eds) Negotiations of the German Society for Internal Medicine. Negotiations of the German Society for Internal Medicine (82nd Congress held in Wiesbaden from April 25th to 29th, 1976), vol 82. JF Bergmann-Verlag, Munich.
  7. Verster JC, Penning R. Treatment and prevention of alcohol hangover. Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2010 Jun;3(2):103-9. doi: 10.2174/1874473711003020103. PMID: 20712594.
  8. Apel, G. On the question of alcohol breakdown during sleep. German total judicial Med. 49 , 388-392 (1960).
  9. Oelkers, HA Liver damage and alcohol degradation. Klin Wochenschr 17, 1410-1411 (1938).
  10. Peng Y, Shi H, Qi Xb. et al. The ADH1B Arg47His polymorphism in East Asian populations and expansion of rice domestication in history. BMC Evol Biol 10, 15 (2010).
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