What happens when you drink and your stomach is “empty”? First, let’s look quickly at what’s in your alcoholic drink, and then we’ll look at how not having any food in your stomach affects alcohol’s interactions with your body.

Most people who’ve drank any alcohol know that alcohol affects the way they think, feel, and act. But few people may know exactly how alcohol works in the body.

To understand what happens when you drink alcohol, it can help to know what is considered a “standard drink.” Different beers, wines, and liquors can have different alcohol contents.

Drinks with more alcohol have a stronger effect on the body than drinks with less alcohol.

A standard drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol.

This equates to about 12 ounces of regular beer at 5 percent alcohol content, 8–9 ounces of malt liquor at 7 percent alcohol, 5 ounces of wine at 12 percent alcohol, and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits with 40 percent alcohol.

Here’s how the body absorbs alcohol when you drink:

  • Mouth. When you begin drinking alcohol, a very small percentage will move into the small blood vessels in the mouth and tongue.
  • Stomach. When alcohol reaches the stomach, up to 20 percent will be absorbed into the blood.
  • Small intestine. When alcohol passes into the small intestine, the remaining 75 to 85 percent is absorbed into the bloodstream.

The bloodstream moves alcohol to different parts of the body. Here’s where the alcohol goes and what it does:

  • Bloodstream. Alcohol continues moving around the body in the bloodstream until the liver breaks it down completely.
  • Liver. The liver filters your blood and breaks down 80 to 90 percent of the alcohol you drink into water, carbon dioxide, and energy, which the body can process. The liver uses enzymes to break down alcohol. The liver normally breaks down alcohol at a rate of one standard drink per hour
  • Kidneys. Your kidneys filter your blood, balance the amount of liquid in your body and remove waste products from your body in your urine. Alcohol forces your kidneys to work harder because they will produce more urine to get rid of the waste products from broken-down alcohol. The body excretes up to 10 percent of alcohol consumed in the urine.
  • Brain. Alcohol moves from the bloodstream into the brain within 5 to 10 minutes after drinking. Alcohol can cause mood changes, difficulty with thinking and coordination, and even trouble forming memories (blackouts).
  • Lungs. In the lungs, some alcohol is evaporated as breath. A person may breathe out up to 8 percent of the alcohol he or she consumes.
  • Skin. A tiny amount of alcohol evaporates from the fine blood vessels under the skin’s surface.

In pregnant women, alcohol passes through the placenta from the mother’s blood to her unborn baby. Babies are exposed to the same levels of blood alcohol as their mothers but cannot break down alcohol like adults. Drinking alcohol at any stage of pregnancy is not advised.

Everyone absorbs alcohol at a different rate. Women, young people, and people who are smaller tend to absorb alcohol more quickly than men and people who are older and larger in body size.

Your liver health will also affect the rate at which your body processes alcohol.

But eating also plays a big role in how your body handles alcohol. Alcohol is most quickly absorbed by the small intestine. The longer alcohol stays in the stomach, the slower it is absorbed and the slower it affects the body.

Food prevents alcohol from passing quickly into your small intestine. When there is food in your stomach before drinking, alcohol is absorbed more slowly.

When you drink on an empty stomach, much of the alcohol you drink passes quickly from the stomach into the small intestine, where most of it is absorbed into the bloodstream.

This intensifies all the side effects of drinking, such as your ability to think and coordinate your body movements.

Light to moderate drinking on an empty stomach may not be a major cause for concern. But drinking large amounts of alcohol fast on an empty stomach can be very dangerous.

An inability to think clearly or move your body safely can cause serious harm, leading to injury or death in extreme cases.

Choosing a lower-alcohol beverage, cutting it with water or other non-alcohol liquids, sipping it over a long period of time, and drinking water at the same time are all ways to dilute the alcohol concentration in your drink.

But this will have little effect on how rapidly your body absorbs the alcohol that’s present. The most ideal situation to avoid any ill effects from drinking on an empty stomach is of course to avoid doing it by eating some food.

Eat at least an hour before drinking if you plan on consuming more than one drink in a sitting. Don’t drink more than one standard drink per hour and know your limits.

If you’re drinking on an empty stomach and begin to feel stomach pain or nausea, or begin vomiting, it’s important to stop drinking and tell someone you’re with how you feel.

Most likely you’ve probably drank too much or too quickly. Start drinking water slowly and try to eat easy-to-digest foods with lots of carbohydrates like pretzels or bread.

Pain, nausea, and dry-heaving or vomiting can also be signs of a life-threatening condition called alcohol poisoning. You can identify alcohol poisoning by several other symptoms, including:

  • confusion
  • hypothermia (low body temperature) causing blue-tinged skin
  • loss of coordination
  • slow or abnormal breathing
  • slurred speech
  • stupor (unresponsive consciousness)
  • unconscious passing out

If you are with someone who may have alcohol poisoning, call 911 right away. Without fast treatment, alcohol poisoning can lead to coma, brain damage, or even death.

Try to keep the person sitting upright and awake. Give them a small amount of water to drink if they are conscious and keep them warm with a blanket if possible.

If they’ve passed out, lie them on their side and watch their breathing.

Never leave the person alone to “sleep it off,” as the amount of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream can continue to rise 30–40 minutes after their last drink and suddenly worsen their symptoms.

Do not give them coffee or more alcohol, and do not try to give them a cold shower to help them “sober up.”

Drinking on an empty stomach can also increase your risk for the usually harmless but still unpleasant side effect of a hangover. A hangover usually happens the day after drinking large quantities of alcohol. Symptoms may include:

  • dizziness or feeling that the room is spinning
  • excessive thirst
  • feeling shaky
  • having an inability to concentrate or think clearly
  • headaches
  • mood issues such as depression, anxiety and irritability
  • nausea
  • poor sleep
  • quick heart rate
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • stomach pain
  • vomiting

While hangover symptoms usually resolve on their own, there are some things you can do to help them go away more quickly. These include:

  • Fluids. Sipping on water, soup broth or fruit juice throughout the day. Do not try to drink more alcohol to cure your hangover
  • Sleep. Sleeping can help your hangover go away more quickly
  • Simple foods. Snacking on bland, easy-to-digest foods such as toast, crackers, or pretzels may boost your blood sugar levels and settle your stomach
  • Pain relievers. Taking pain relievers such as ibuprofen may ease your headache. Avoid acetaminophen if you drink regularly, as it can worsen any liver problems. You could also try a wet, cold cloth across your forehead, in addition to or instead of pain relief medications.

Consuming a very large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time, especially on an empty stomach, can be dangerous and sometimes even fatal.

But in most cases, drinking on an empty stomach will cause only the unpleasant side effects associated with a hangover. Eating before moderate drinking can slow down alcohol’s effect on you and reduce your chances of a bad reaction to alcohol.