The act of drinking alcohol is surrounded by myths. Whether it’s the idea you can trick breathalysers or the suggestion that caffeine sobers you up, let’s debunk some of these misconceptions so we can actually enjoy our drinks.
Myth 1: Caffeine (or a Shower) Can Sober You Up
We’ve all been there before: you have too many drinks and you need to get sober as quick as possible. Someone around you tells you about their sure-fire way to get sober. It’s almost always drinking coffee, but you might also hear that you can sober up by taking a cold shower. Unfortunately, none of these things work.
Studies show that drinking a cup of coffee can counter alcohol’s sleepiness effect, but it can’t sober you up any quicker. You get less drunk as your body metabolises alcohol, and you can’t speed that process up. Speaking to the BBC, researcher Dr Thomas Gould sums it up like so:
The myth about coffee’s sobering powers is particularly important to debunk because the co-use of caffeine and alcohol could actually lead to poor decisions with disastrous outcomes… People who feel tired and intoxicated after consuming alcohol may be more likely to acknowledge that they are drunk. Conversely, people who have consumed both alcohol and caffeine may feel awake and competent enough to handle potentially-harmful situations, such as driving while intoxicated or placing themselves in dangerous social situations.
Likewise, food might help soak up a little bit of that alcohol in your system, but you have to have it in your system first. So, the next time you find yourself trying to sober up, skip the coffee and just wait it out.
Myth 2: Drinking Kills Brain Cells
Alcohol does all kinds of things to your body, but killing brain cells is not one of them. Over the years, several studies show that alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells, but it does affect how the brain works. The New York Times sums up the research well:
[A]lcohol disrupts brain function in adults by damaging message-carrying dendrites on neurons in the cerebellum, a structure involved in learning and motor coordination. This reduces communication between neurons, alters their structure and causes some of the impairment associated with intoxication. It does not kill off entire cells, however.
So, too much alcohol can impair brain function (including memory). However, it’s not because brain cells get killed off, it’s because the neurons aren’t communicating as well they should. The damage is akin to running into pot holes along your daily commute: you still get to work, but it takes you a lot longer.
Myth 3: Mixing Types of Alcohol Gets You More Drunk
If you’re going out on the town and want to stay awake and aware all night, it’s pretty common advice to steer clear of mixing alcohol. Which is to say, if you start with beer, stick with beer. If you start with whiskey, stick to whiskey. And so on. Unfortunately, mixing liquor types doesn’t affect how drunk you get over the course of the evening. Speaking with The New York Times, Dr Roshini Rajapaksa notes that the amount you drink matters most:
What matters most, she said, is the amount of alcohol consumed and whether it is combined with any food, which slows absorption and minimizes sickness…
It is the total quantity of alcohol consumed, not combined, that influences intoxication and sickness.
When you think about it, it’s common sense. The amount of alcohol you drink, regardless of order, is what’s going to affect how your feel. That said, the classic recommendation “beer before liquor, you’ve never been sicker” might have some validity. It just has less to do with chemistry and more to do with psychology. Gizmodo spoke with Dr Rueben Gonzales to explain:
So if you start out drinking beer at a certain rate, and then continue drinking a mixed drink at the same rate, it’s like driving slowly and then stepping on the gas. Your mouth may not know the difference in the alcohol concentration, but your body will. In contrast, if you start off drinking hard liquor, you’re likely to be drinking at a slower rate and feel drunk faster. Switching to beer and then drinking at the same rate will result in a decreased stream of alcohol by volume.
So, mix your alcohol types as much as you want, but make sure you slow yourself down if you do make that switch from beer to liquor.
Myth 4: “Breaking the Seal” Causes You to Urinate More Often
As the legend goes, when you go to the bathroom for the first time during a night of drinking, you break a magical “seal” that makes it so you pee more often as the night goes on. Of course, no seal exists. Going to pee doesn’t make you have to pee more, and holding it won’t make you have to go less. The seal is a myth, but, alcohol itself does make you pee more than normal. NBC News explains why:
Alcohol consumption suppresses vasopressin, also known as anti-diuretic hormone. The pituitary gland in the brain releases ADH, which regulates water in your kidneys.
“Alcohol simply blocks the normal release of vasopressin … [vasopressin] promotes re-absorption of water in the kidney to the rest of the body. If you have this blocked, the water goes into the body,” Zacny adds.
…When you imbibe, the ADH excretion lessens, increasing your urine production..When people drink, they consume more liquids than usual; pair that with the body sending the unabsorbed water directly to the bladder, and it’s no surprise people feel more urgency. And once the drinking starts, the body goes through a vicious cycle….
So, you pee more often than normal when you drink alcohol, but it has nothing to do with breaking the seal.
Myth 5: Drinking One Drink an Hour Keeps You Sober Enough to Drive
It’s generally recommended that you limit your drinking to one drink an hour if you need to drive. The myth says that since your body processes alcohol at about a rate of one drink per hour, you won’t get too drunk to drive if you pace yourself.
Of course, this one’s tough to quantify, because we all process alcohol at different speeds. Here’s Dr Kenneth R. Warren, deputy director of The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:
The average rate of alcohol metabolism is 100 milligrams of alcohol per kilogram of bodyweight per hour. For a typical 160-pound (73kg) man, this would translate into 7 grams of alcohol in an hour. The so-called standard serving, a 12-ounce (355mL) bottle of beer, is 14 grams of alcohol, so it would take two hours to fully metabolize it. For most people, if you drink one drink an hour, you’re going to become more and more impaired each hour.
So, while everyone’s alcohol metabolism rate is a little different, chances are the “one drink per hour” rule doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a couple of drinks and still be able to drive, but it does mean that you’ll want to reconsider your own timing.
Myth 6: You Can Trick a Breathalyser
You’ll find a lot of different myths about tricking breathalysers, including eating a breath mint, and even eating underwear. The myth assumes that breathalysers detect alcohol by the smell, but that’s not how they work.
In simple terms, breathalysers detect alcohol by using a chemical reaction to remove alcohol from the air and force it to react with another compound. This chemical reaction in the breathalyser can measure your blood alcohol level (BAC) using just your breath. It has nothing to do with what your breath smells like, so covering up the smell of alcohol with something like a mint doesn’t help.
We couldn’t find any formal studies on the subject, but shows like Mythbusters and Manswers have tackled the topic before. Both found that these strategies don’t work, and you can’t trick a breathalyser. Furthermore, police officers search inside your mouth to make sure you’re not holding something there that will mess with the test. Plus, if an officer still suspects you’re drunk, but the breathalyser isn’t working, they can take you into the police station to test your BAC with a blood sample.
All that said, one study suggests that breathing patterns might influence the results. For example, hyperventilating could produce a lower BAC level. However, the best you’ll get from hyperventilating is around a 10 per cent decrease in your BAC. It will also make you light headed, which any observant police officer is sure to notice.
And the most important part of this myth: If you’re in a situation where you’d need to fool a breathalyser, you shouldn’t be driving in the first place. So don’t.
Myth 7: Different Types of Alcohol Affect Your Behaviour
We’ve all heard it before: whiskey makes you rowdy, tequila makes you dance, rum chills you out and whatever else. People love to claim that certain types of alcohol turn them into certain types of people. We didn’t find any studies that looked at this idea in full, but that’s because from a purely chemical level, the type of alcohol doesn’t affect your BAC level. Essentially, drunk is drunk, and it doesn’t matter how you get there. Speaking with the The Guardian, Dr Guy Ratcliffe, medical director of the Medical Council on Alcohol adds:
The effects of alcohol are similar, whichever form they come in… Any difference is dependent on the rate at which it is drunk and the amount. Alcohol is a simple molecule that is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. So if you drink a few shorts — spirits are generally 40% ABV [alcohol by volume] — quickly, you’ll get a rapid increase in your blood alcohol level.
It’s more likely that the myth is psychosocial. We drink different types of alcohol at different rates, and we have different expectations about what drinking a certain type of liquor will do. As io9 points out, expectations can sway how we react to alcohol. One 2006 review paper explains it like so:
Studies of alcohol effects on motor and cognitive functioning have shown the individual differences in responses to alcohol are related to the specific types of effects that drinkers expect. In general, those who expect the least impairment are least impaired and those who expect the most impairment are most impaired under the drug. Moreover, this same relationship is observed in response to placebo.
So, from a technical standpoint, the type of liquor you drink probably doesn’t affect your behaviour. But your brain might.
Myth 8: Shrimp, Green Tea, Coffee, More Alcohol Will Cure a Hangover
Everyone has their own hangover cure. Perhaps an older brother suggested a hot shower and cup of coffee, or a wise coworker insists that eggs on toast slathered in hot sauce fixes everything. Most of these “cures” are bogus, and we’re still not completely certain of the best way to treat a hangover. In fact, one review suggests that the only viable way to prevent or treat a hangover is to abstain from drinking. So, let’s look at what doctors typically recommend for a hangover:
- Water: Alcohol is a diuretic and every time you pee you’re losing water. So, drinking water the next day helps you get your hydration level back to normal, which typically helps with a headache caused by dehydration. Speaking of headaches, you can lessen those symptoms with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
- Foods with fructose: Fructose, also known as fruit sugar, gives you energy and helps your body excrete toxins. One study suggests that this boost in energy can help shorten the effects on a hangover, but it’s not clear how much of an effect it has.
- Foods with complex carbohydrates: A review of studies found that foods containing complex carbohydrates like toast or crackers may help alleviate nausea by levelling out low blood sugar levels. That said, The Smithsonian points out that stomach relief medication such as an antacid or bismuth subsalicylate might do just as well.
- Reduce acetaldehyde levels: Newer research published in Food & Function suggests that hangovers are primarily caused by an enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). The liver releases this enzyme to convert alcohol into another chemical acetaldehyde. Researchers found that if they reduced the time that acetaldehyde was in the body, the hangover subsided. They also found that the best way to do this was with Sprite, although further research is still needed.
All this is to say: we’re still not sure what the best hangover cure is and there’s not a lot of research that will help clear that up right now. Most of the above methods are from smaller studies without reproductions, and Wired points out that even the intuitive idea that water helps is up for debate (and one study backs this up):
Take dehydration. Sure, it makes sense: Alcohol suppresses the antidiuretic hormone vasopressin, which ordinarily keeps you from peeing too much. Plus, if you’re drinking booze, you’re probably not drinking water. But in dehydrated people with hangovers, levels of electrolytes don’t differ too much from baseline controls — and when they do, they don’t correlate with hangover severity.
So, where does that leave this myth? Still undecided, it seems. The science is pretty confused about what works for hangovers. Either way, some water and carbohydrates can’t hurt the situation, so it’s best to stick with whatever works for you for the time being. And if you want to avoid it next time, just go a little easier on the booze.