How to maintain a buzz without getting drunk

Think ahead to avoid regrets.

people holding up glasses in a toast
It's pretty easy to stay tipsy, as long as you're mindfulAlasdair Elmes

The holidays are upon us and just as we surround ourselves with loved ones, we’ll probably find ourselves likewise surrounded by a sea of booze. Whether that’s rum-spiked cider, pricey wines, or fancy cocktails we’d normally never have time to make, the holiday atmosphere and delectable offerings can certainly make it tempting to overindulge. But no one wants to spend the next year cringing at their holiday memories—or lack thereof—so here are some tips for keeping your blood alcohol concentration safely on the happy, hangover-free side of the buzzed-drunk divide.

Eat something first—no, really!

Before you bring that first drink to your lips, take a second to think about the contents of your stomach. If there’s nothing there, you’re already in trouble. On an empty stomach, your drink will dump rapidly into your small intestine, dodging past stomach enzymes designed to degrade it, in a beeline for your bloodstream. Food slows the flow, giving the booze more time to break down.

“Alcohol absorption is greatly reduced—it can be 50, 60 percent—if you eat a big 600 or 700 calorie meal before you drink,” says Joseph Fisher, a medical scientist and creator of SOBAR, a snack bar designed to slow alcohol absorption. Eating first may be even more important for women, who are thought to have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), the enzyme that primarily breaks down alcohol, in their stomachs.

Drinks are ready but the meal is not? At least try to scarf down something high in fat, insoluble fiber, or protein, says Fisher. These types of food interact with the stomach in a way that slows it’s emptying. Nuts are a great go-to, he says.

Take it slow

Before you head out to your holiday celebration, it’s a good idea to check out a blood alcohol content (BAC) chart, which lets you use your sex and weight to approximate your BAC depending on how much you drink in an hour. Men tend to produce more ADH and have more blood volume than women, meaning they’ll get drunk a bit slower when downing the same quantities. For most people, the BAC sweet spot—where alcohol helps you feel relaxed, social and euphoric—falls somewhere in between 0.02 and 0.06 percent. As you push towards the brink of legal impairment, or 0.08 percent, these positive feelings start to give way to negative effects, like poor coordination, altered judgment and slurred speech. Get off that climb or you’ll lose your happy buzz completely, and be left instead to grapple with booze’s even more sinister effects, which can include disorientation, negative emotions and puking (Happy Holidays!).

Once in your bloodstream, the alcohol will be processed at a constant rate by your liver. Everyone is different, but a good general rule of thumb is that the liver can process about one standard drink each hour. Keep in mind that alcohol is absorbed faster than it’s metabolized and try to plan your pace before you start to drink.

Don’t chase your buzz

Most people know that regular drinkers build a tolerance to alcohol, but what’s less obvious is that tolerance also builds over the course of a night. This acute tolerance means you start to feel less of alcohol’s mood lifting influence over time, even at the same BAC. Sadly, though, that doesn’t take the edge off other effects, like motor impairments and the deterioration of driving ability, which, if you keep drinking, will eventually outpace your pleasant buzz.

“If you keep trying to stay at the same level, you’re basically a tiger chasing its tail,” says George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Instead manage your expectations and be ready to accept that the height of your buzz has passed during the initial BAC climb.

Be mindful

When it comes down to it, getting too drunk is really about the amount of alcohol passing from your glass to your lips—it’s a question of behavior, says Anne Fernandez, a clinical psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It’s easy to go out intending to only have a few, then end the night dancing on the bar. But psychology research shows there are ways to reign yourself in. Recent studies suggests mindfulness training might help combat substance use disorders, and the same approach can be useful for anyone toeing the line at a holiday event. Start by compensating for the future, tipsy you by brainstorming ways to be mindful about your drinking in the moment.

“Some people put coins in one pocket and move them to the other with each drink,” Fernandez says. Scheduling a pause to check in with yourself each time you reach for another is an alternative approach. It’s a good time to ask yourself if you might want to slow down by drinking water or opting for a drink with a lower alcohol concentration, like beer instead of liquor, she says.

Don’t bet on myths

Planning to sober up by pounding coffee? Not gonna work!

“Caffeine has no effect on the metabolism of alcohol by the liver and thus does not reduce breath or blood alcohol concentrations (it does not “sober you up”) or reduce impairment due to alcohol consumption,” reads a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet on the subject. Worse, caffeine can mask impairments by increasing alertness, which often leads drunk individuals to wrongly assume they can safely drink more.

And what about that claim popularized by Sam Adams beer founder Jim Koch that eating baker’s yeast throughout the night can keep you sober? That appears to be a dud as well.

Look forward to tomorrow

The great thing about this time of year is that you don’t have to do all your celebrating in just one day—and the same goes for drinking. No matter what tricks you employ, drinking large quantities at once is tricky and bad for your health. And even if you manage to drink all night without feeling drunk, you might still suffer a hangover in the morning. Consider sticking to just a bit tonight so you can enjoy another bit tomorrow.

Note: If you regularly have difficulties controlling your drinking and think you might be struggling with alcoholism, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).