Wine: How to Know When You've Drunk too Much

Introduction

Whether you have to drive later or you’re at a work function, it’s a good idea to know how much you can drink without getting drunk. Alternately, if you have no responsibilities on a given night, perhaps you’d like to get a little tipsy just for the fun of it. Either way, if you’re a wine drinker, it can be hard to determine how many glasses of wine it takes to get you drunk. 

Many factors influence intoxication levels, along with different views about what intoxication is. Taking all of this information into account to create a cohesive picture of how much it takes to get drunk is more complicated than it at first appears. The short answer is that the answer will be different for everyone, depending on their unique situation. There are a few guidelines, though, and we’ll discuss them here. 

Related: Three Ideas for Leftover Wine

Defining Drunkenness

One of the most significant factors when it comes to this question is the definition of drunkenness. What does it mean to be drunk? Different people will give different answers depending on their experience levels and backgrounds. However, there are two primary barometers people use to define drunkenness. One is the experiential measure. This thought is based on the idea of defining drunkenness by how intoxicated one feels. The other is the fact-based blood alcohol content (BAC), a measure of alcohol concentration in the bloodstream. 

The experiential method for defining drunkenness is popular with many people because it’s based on personal perception, which allows a lot of room for subjectivity. This fact means that intoxication might occur with different numbers of drinks on different nights. It also means that it’s a highly inaccurate measure. However, it’s one that people continue to use, regardless. 

Much more accurate is the blood alcohol content. This measurement is based on what’s happening in your body as it processes alcohol. It is also an exact measure of intoxication. From a legal standpoint, intoxication to the degree of being unable to drive occurs at a blood-alcohol level of .08. For most people, that’s 2-3 glasses of wine. 

Note that any measure of intoxication is a measure of the level of impairment. As we’ll see below, many factors can affect impairment levels even if they don’t change the subject’s blood alcohol content. That means that it’s possible to be “drunker” than your BAC would indicate. 

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Factors Influencing Intoxication

Many factors influence a person’s level of impairment from alcohol. They range from consumption speed to mixing with other substances and everything in between. The vital thing to take away is that drunkenness is a function of more than just the number of glasses of wine one has to drink. 

Speed of Consumption

Because alcohol processes at a speed of one drink per hour, the shorter the time between drinks, the more intoxicated you will be. For instance, if you were to have one glass of wine over an hour, then have a second over a subsequent hour, you would be largely unimpaired because the wine would process at approximately the rate you were drinking. On the other hand, if you were to have three glasses of wine in one hour, you would only process the first one, leaving two more drinks in your system. 

Biological Sex

Sex plays a factor in determining how drunk a person gets on a given amount of alcohol. This is because women tend to be smaller than men, and size plays a big part in intoxication levels. However, note that women also produce less alcohol dehydrogenase, which is the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol. This fact means that alcohol remains in their bloodstream longer than it does for men. 

Body Size and Composition

One of the most significant factors in determining the effects of alcohol on a person is body size and composition. Larger people require more alcohol to reach a given blood alcohol level. This is because there is more mass to saturate with alcohol. The body’s composition contributes as well. People with more muscle mass process alcohol more effectively, while people with high percentages of body fat exhibit extended processing times. 

Person pouring a glass of wine at a picnic table.

Stomach Content

Whether a person has eaten contributes to the speed at which they become intoxicated. The larger the meal, the closer to the moment of alcohol consumption, the lower the peak blood alcohol concentration. This may be because the presence of food in the stomach prevents alcohol from being absorbed directly through the tissue. 

Related: A Story of California’s Oldest Winery

Illness

When a person is ill or just recovering from an illness, impairment approaches more quickly. This may be because the illness itself contributes some base level of impairment that is only further exacerbated by alcohol consumption. 

Mood

While mood usually doesn’t directly affect blood alcohol content, it does influence the level of impairment experienced by the individual. Strong feelings like anger, fear, and loneliness can increase the rate of impairment. In addition, stress-inducing emotions can change stomach enzymes, which may adjust the way alcohol processes through the body. 

Hormones

Both birth control and the premenstrual stage for women may result in higher blood alcohol levels. 

Sleep

Sleep is a critical element of a healthy life. This is just as true with the consumption of alcohol as anything else. Sleeping too little reduces tolerance, which means that alcohol causes impairment (drunkenness) more rapidly. It has been found to have a multiplicative effect. The number of drinks consumed has effects as though many more had been drunk. 

Other Drugs and Medications

The use of other drugs and certain medications creates exponentially higher rates of intoxication. Drugs that cause this effect include marijuana and other street drugs, ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatories, pain medications, and some mood stabilizers and psychological treatments. 

Functional Tolerance

While it has no bearing on actual impairment or blood alcohol levels, functional tolerance bears mentioning. When a person has a high functional tolerance, it takes more alcohol to create the impression of impairment in the person and to those around them. Note that a functionally tolerant person with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher is still drunk. They may simply not seem to be so. 

Related: Aging Wine Underwater

Four glasses of rose and a candlestick at a dinner table.

 

Conclusion

As you can see, determining how many glasses of wine it takes to get drunk doesn’t have a single straightforward answer. It varies from person to person, depending on a wide range of factors. In addition, the perception of drunkenness is sometimes distinct from an actual impairment, which further muddies the issue. So, when considering how many glasses of wine to consume, it may be best to go with medical guidelines regarding moderate consumption. If you keep it to 1 to 2 drinks per day, you will avoid drunkenness and encourage overall better health than exceeding this amount. 

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