ScientIST: Can I Have Another Drink?

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Photo by Melissa Moore | LAist

What is a New Year’s Eve without an alcoholic binge? (Bringing a bright and shiny New Year’s Day rife with a pounding migraine, vomit-flecked party clothes, and the dim recollection of hooking up with a few ne’er-do-wells, of course.) Booze may have found its humble beginnings in the Neolithic period 10,000 years ago, but scientists are just now getting a handle on the mechanism of action for its varied and extensive effects.

Dose and frequency of dose are integral to parsing out alcohol’s good, bad, and ugly. Since acute alcohol ingestion can cause slowed reaction times, slurred speech, and loss of motor control, Los Angeles (and the rest of the US) set limits for drinking and driving. A blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% is considered legally drunk when you're operating your vehicle, despite the difficulty in correlating BAC with intoxication due to mitigating factors such as sex, age, weight, metabolic rate, etc.

What does a BAC of 0.08% really mean? You can think of it as approximately 2 standard drinks slammed (or sipped) over the course of an hour, give or take depending on the factors stated above. This is congruent with research showing that low to moderate doses of ethanol can impair learning and memory, effect visual perception, and impair motor coordination. On the whole, the US is pretty lenient, as other countries have zero tolerance DUI statutes, with punishments ranging from an immediate year in jail (Sweden) to death (Serbia).

Drinking and driving aside, low doses of alcohol (1-2 drinks/day) have been associated with decreased risk of developing coronary heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, and ischemic stroke. Conversely, high doses, and chronic use of high doses, can cause anesthesia, liver and cardiovascular damage, and even death. But what MOST people can’t stand is the bloody hangover. We want a quick and efficient means to prevent or cure the awful feelings of the morning after. Drowsiness, dizziness, stomach upset, sweating, irritability, nausea, anxiety, hyper-excitability, headache, etc. have all ruined the 24-48 hours post-party. Unfortunately, research has not elucidated a reliable hangover ameliorator, so we’re left with managing our alcohol intake or alleviating the individual symptoms post-hoc.

Before drinking: Eat something with a mixture of fats, carbohydrates, and protein prior to imbibing to slow the rate of alcohol absorption in the stomach. Snacking throughout the night, while not ideal for the waistline, will help with the crap feeling the next day.

While drinking: Here’s the deal: The only proven way to avoid a hangover is to abstain from drinking. Use the past to inform your present. How many drinks can you have without feeling like shit the next day? Do you really need to go beyond that number? Making a pact with yourself regarding the amount you’ll ingest before you begin drinking is a good way to keep on track with feeling OK the next morning.

If you know you’re going to blow it out, hangover be damned, try having water between each alcoholic drink. Over the course of the evening, you’ll consume less while staying hydrated.

Cocktails with congeners (the chemicals that give flavor and color to your drink) worsen the effects of a hangover, so try sticking with beer, vodka, gin, and white wine. (Although some research suggests orange juice can mediate the effect of congeners). A vodka soda on the rocks with extra lime will give you the same amount of alcohol as a whisky sour, but will make your hangover less severe.

After the damage is done: If you feel like you need to puke, bombs away. Your body is trying to rid itself of toxins, so allow this to occur. Then try and sip some water to prevent the effects of dehydration. If you’re not booting, then get a few glasses of water down before hitting the sack. And remember, sleep deprivation is part of the bad feeling the next day. Aim for getting at least 8 hours. If all else fails, ball up on the couch with two Aleve and a trashcan at your feet and ride out the storm.

Cheers!