December 12, 2017
Alcohol: Your Questions Answered

Alcohol: Your Questions Answered

by Berkeley Wellness  

We’ve often discussed alcohol in terms of its health benefits and risks. Here are some other answers to popular alcohol-related questions.

Is it better to avoid drinking on an empty stomach?

Yes. If you haven't eaten in a few hours, alcohol gets through your gastrointestinal tract and into your bloodstream quickly, increasing the adverse effects. Blood alcohol levels typically peak in 30 minutes to two hours when fasting, compared to two to six hours when there’s food in your stomach. Foods high in fat or protein delay alcohol absorption most.

Why are people with more body fat affected more by alcohol?

Alcohol becomes diluted in body fluids, and lean tissue (such as muscle) contains more water than fatty tissue does. So in two people of the same weight, the person with more body fat will be affected more by a given amount of alcohol because it will be concentrated more in the blood, rather than in other, water-loaded tissues. That's one reason why women are advised to drink less than men; they tend to have less lean tissue, and thus less body water. The same is true of older people, which is one reason they are more affected by alcohol than younger people. (Another reason is that the ability to metabolize alcohol decreases with age.)

What else affects how people react to alcohol?

Besides age, gender, genetics, food intake, weight, and body fat, alcohol’s effects also depend on how quickly you drink it and what medications you’re taking. For example, sleeping pills or certain pain medications can boost the depressant effects of alcohol. In addition, alcoholics tend to metabolize alcohol at a higher rate, which allows them to drink to excess unless their liver becomes diseased.

Why does alcohol cause a hangover?

When consumed in excess, alcohol has many short-term adverse effects. Alcohol or its breakdown products promote dehydration, irritate the stomach, decrease dilation of blood vessels, disrupt sleep, and increase the level of inflammatory chemicals in the body.

Why do you sometimes get a hangover after a couple of drinks, but other times not?

The main factor is how much and how quickly you drink, but other factors play a role too, including whether you are drinking on an empty stomach or smoking while you drink (both can magnify the effects of the alcohol). In addition, dark liquors such as bourbon and scotch, as well as red wine, contain more congeners—compounds such as acetone that seem to contribute to hangovers—than their lighter-colored counterparts. But keep in mind, even if you manage to become less tipsy and avoid getting a hangover by drinking slowly and with food, by drinking light-colored beverages such as vodka, and by drinking plenty of water with it, you’ll still be impaired by the alcohol and should not drive.

Can coffee or a cold shower help sober you up?

It might have a small, brief effect, but nothing will speed up the removal of alcohol and its breakdown products from your body. The only thing that helps is time.

How does alcohol affect blood sugar?

Light to moderate alcohol consumption may help increase insulin secretion and thus lower blood sugar levels. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that light drinkers had a lower risk of type 2 diabetes than people who abstained. However, heavier drinking—more than three drinks a day for men and 1 1/2 for women—was not beneficial. The American Diabetes Association, like the American Heart Association, advises women to limit themselves to one drink a day, and men, to two drinks.

If you have high blood pressure, is it good or bad to drink?

A Harvard study of nearly 12,000 male health professionals with hypertension found that those who had a drink or two a day had a slightly reduced risk of 
heart attacks and no apparent increased risk of stroke. Heavy drinking, however, is known to raise blood pressure, and thus people with hypertension should not drink heavily. If you are taking medication to lower your blood pressure, talk with your doctor about possible interactions with alcohol.

Why do some people become flushed when they drink even a little alcohol?

That’s usually a symptom of alcohol intolerance—a genetic condition whereby the body can’t break down alcohol. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, sweating, and high heart rate, even after small amounts of alcohol. People of Asian descent have a higher rate of alcohol intolerance. Alcohol also causes flushing in people with rosacea.

Is it good if you can “hold your liquor” well?

Not really. You may have a “tolerance” to alcohol—that is, be less affected by a given amount of it—because of genetic factors or because you’re a regular drinker. Your liver is thus better able to respond to larger amounts of alcohol by producing more of the enzymes that break it down. But that can put you at increased risk for alcohol abuse and all the adverse effects that entails.

Does champagne make you drunker?

It can. The bubbles in carbonated drinks tend to speed up emptying of the stomach and absorption of alcohol, leading to faster impairment. So champagne (as well as other carbonated mixers) may make you intoxicated faster than other drinks.

What about alcoholic beverages made with mixers?

It depends on what type of mixer. Watch out for alcoholic drinks made with artificially sweetened “diet” mixers: they can make you more intoxicated. Because these drinks empty from the stomach faster than those made with sugary mixers, the alcohol is absorbed into the blood more rapidly. Sugar, on the other hand, delays stomach emptying, slowing alcohol’s absorption.

Just one “diet” mixed alcoholic beverage may be enough to raise your blood alcohol level beyond the legal limit, according to a study in the American Journal of Medicine. Women in particular should take note of this, since not only do they experience higher blood alcohol levels after drinking the same amount of alcohol as men, but they also are more likely to use diet mixers such as diet cola or tonic.

Also see Alcohol and Weight Gain.