Lightweight drinker

Originally Published: January 6, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 15, 2007
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Dear Alice,

Does the classification of a "lightweight" with regard to alcohol consumption imply anything about the liver? In particular, is there anything abnormal about feeling tipsy after only one beer (vital stats = 155 lbs., 6 ft.). I know my family has a history of liver problems and I have in the past drank to excess on many occasions. It has never taken much to become inebriated and now it takes even a little less. Should I be worried?

Not worried, just curious

Dear Not worried, just curious,

The way a person reacts to alcohol is a tricky thing. Even though alcohol passes through all of our bodies using the same mechanisms (primarily the liver), drinking may have very different effects on people. Even when an individual drinks exactly the same amount of alcohol on two different occasions, it may result in different outcomes.

Physiologically, the following factors affect the body's response to alcohol:

  • Genetics
  • Gender
  • Body weight & body fat percentage
  • Speed of consumption
  • Type of beverage consumed
  • Drinking history: drinking regularly develops tolerance
  • Body chemistry: how rapidly the stomach empties into the small intestine may be slowed or increased by anger, fear, stress, euphoria, state of relaxation, etc.
  • Whether your stomach is full or empty

Psychologically, these factors influence a person's reaction to alcohol:

  • Why a person is drinking
  • Drinking environment: think about the various environments you have been in when drinking, when the change seemed to occur regarding getting drunk easier, and see if there are any parallels with the particular influences on your drinking.

Getting back to your question about the liver, the short answer is maybe or maybe not. The liver is responsible for breaking down alcohol in the body, but the many factors listed above are going to have an impact. Because you mention that it has never taken much to become intoxicated, it sounds like alcohol impacts you quicker than others.  It could be as simple as the interaction of the physical and psychological factors producing an intoxicated like feeling, even if your blood alcohol content (BAC) level doesn't meet the legal definition of under the influence. Your individual reaction to alcohol is not a predictor of liver health by itself.

You may also want to take a look at why you choose to drink alcohol. Drinking for the purpose of getting drunk is not considered to be a healthier approach to alcohol, though it is a motivator for some people. You may also want to consider the idea that quick reactions to alcohol may be a sign that your body has developed tolerance; and tolerance is a warning sign for alcohol problems (including addiction).

It's great that you're aware of your family's history of liver problems because the liver may be harmed by alcohol use and abuse. You may want to talk with a counselor or your health care provider about tests that might rule out current liver problems for you and provide a little more insight. If you go to Columbia, you can make an appointment with Primary Care Medical Services by calling x4-2284 or through Open Communicator. Additionally, just knowing how alcohol impacts you is a great way to develop a healthier approach to drinking.