By David Joel Miller.
Standard drinks and why they matter.
There are more urban myths and legends around alcoholic beverages than you would find in most children’s story books.
People believe that one particular alcoholic beverage is safer or less likely to get you drunk than another. Does drinking shots get you drunk faster? Is wine safer than beer? Can you avoid becoming an alcoholic by sticking to beer and avoiding the hard stuff? Let’s look at the facts behind these beliefs.
All alcoholic beverages share one most significant ingredient – ethanol. Alcohol is produced by the action of yeast fermenting something. Fermenting grains and berries produces ethyl alcohol, which is the only alcohol that can be drunk by humans without fatal results. Wood can be fermented and produces methyl alcohol, but if it is drunk it can be fatal, producing blindness and brain damage before death.
All alcoholic beverages contain ethyl alcohol. When it comes to intoxication – alcohol is alcohol. What varies is the amount of alcohol and the various additives and flavorings. Make no mistake. The more ethyl alcohol you consume the drunker you will get.
To compare one alcoholic beverage with another we have created the concept of a “standard drink.” Correctly served, a standard drink of beer, wine or a shot or hard liquor all contains precisely the same amount of alcohol.
A standard drink of beer is a twelve-ounce bottle. One small can of beer contains one standard drink. People mislead themselves into thinking that drinking beer is safer because it requires drinking more volume than other drinks to get the same blood alcohol level.
More than once a client has said: “I only had a couple of beers but I got a DUI anyway.” It makes a lot of difference if the beers were 12 ounces or 40 ounces. One beer should produce a blood alcohol level of about .02. Two 40 ounce beers are equal to almost 7 of the little ones and will produce a blood alcohol level of around 0.14. That is past the point of legally drunk in most any place I know of.
It is also worth noting that in the United States of America more than half of all the alcohol (pure ethyl alcohol) consumed comes from beer. Lite Beers may be as bad or even worse.
Also for the record, your liver may develop tolerance to alcohol but the liver only has one speed. No matter how high the blood alcohol level goes the liver can only detoxify one standard drink of ethyl alcohol an hour and the liver only starts to work once the alcohol is digested and absorbed into the blood stream. This explains why someone can drink a couple of 40-ounce beers, feel fine and then suddenly feel drunk an hour to an hour and a half later after the alcohol gets absorbed into the blood stream.
Malt liquor will get the drinker even higher blood alcohol numbers, up to half again the numbers for beer.
A standard drink of wine is one – five-ounce glass of 12 % wine. This number will vary from text to text. Some places measure alcohol by volume and other countries measure by weight. So don’t be surprised if you read elsewhere that a standard drink is 4 ounces of wine.
If you like “fortified wines” as in sherry or port the size of the glass needs to be smaller. A standard drink of port is a 3.5-ounce glass.
It does not count if you open a bottle of wine, pour one glass and then continue to refill the glass all evening. If you finish off the whole bottle of wine, regardless of the number of glasses you use, you will have consumed 5 standard drinks. Five standard drinks on one occasion for a man or four standard drinks for a woman is binge drinking and does a lot more damage to your body. This is an even bigger problem if you are a binge drinking senior citizen.
Shots – Hard Liquor.
A standard drink of hard liquor is one and one-half ounces of 40% alcohol. Since proof numbers are exactly double percentages that would mean a standard drink of 86 proof liquor should be just shy of 1 ½ oz.
So a person drinking 3 ounces of hard liquor in a small glass gets two standard drinks.
A beer drinker consumes a forty-ounce bottle of beer; his buddy drinks only one glass with three ounces of 86 proof tequila, who is drunker?
Easy – the beer drinker consumed like three and a half standard drinks, the tequila drinker only consumed two standard drinks, the beer drinker will be way more intoxicated come an hour later when the drink is absorbed into the blood stream.
See how easy it is to fool yourselves saying you had only one drink when in fact there was a whole lot more alcohol in that one drink than you thought?
In this discussion, we have left out the effects of “tolerance” and “withdrawal” which complicate the math but not the legally drunk part. We also have not talked about drinking something stronger like “151” or “191” and how much closer that could take you to the .60 blood alcohol level where you black out, organs stop working and you get pronounced legally dead.
Also, you need to know that if every time you drink, you end up drunk, that has less to do with the kind of drink you consumed and more to do with your having counteracted a disease called alcoholism.
So the results of this exercise tell us, it really doesn’t matter if you drink beer, wine or a hard liquor, what matters is how much ethyl alcohol is in that drink and what happens to you when you put ethyl alcohol in your blood stream.
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books