Mythbusting Booze: Myths and realities of alcohol consumption

This is the first part of a series that aims to bust some myths about booze.

Hangovers suck and they’re probably best avoided. But once you’ve got one, can you get rid of it? People swear by their favourite hangover cures — insisting that if you just follow their advice, you’ll free yourself of the post-intoxicated state.

Can they be avoided by drinking only expensive wines? Will your hangover be worse if you mix spirits and beer? Do some people never get hangovers? If you get drunk easily, will your hangovers be less severe? Does alcohol kill brain cells that never grow back? Is alcohol more or less addictive than heroin?

These are just some of the questions I’ll be exploring through a series of posts on booze-related myths and realities.

I was moved to look into this when I was faced with the seemingly very widely held belief that cheap wines give you worse hangovers than expensive wines. While I know very little about the biology of alcohol intoxication, this just seemed to me to be utterly implausible. If it is true, then it stands to reason that what really gives you the hangover is something other than the alcohol. And if that is true, then presumably you could get a hangover by drinking something other than alcohol. But this seems absurd. So (by what philosophers call reductio ad absurdum) our initial premise must be wrong (or one of our logical steps was wrong).

So, somewhere along the way, I’ll try to find the answer to that, and many other alcohol related questions.

For the first post in the series I want your help. I want you to tell me all your alcohol-related questions that you were too afraid to ask. Throughout the series, I’ll try to answer them by sifting through published papers and speaking to people who’s job it is to know (scientists, I mean). Do you have tried-and-true hangover cure? Have you heard about a cure that you’d like to know more about? Are you worried about some putative effect of alcohol consumption? Leave a comment below or email me.

One thing that is of central concern to this series is the question of what a hangover is. In a paper called “The alcohol hangover – A puzzling phenomenon”, one researcher put the question as follows.

The alcohol hangover is an intriguing issue since it is unknown why these symptoms are present after alcohol and its metabolites are eliminated from the body.

The paper continues:

Although numerous scientific papers cover the acute effects of alcohol consumption, researchers largely neglected the issue of alcohol hangover. This lack of scientific interest is remarkable, since almost everybody is familiar with the unpleasant hangover effects that may arise the day after an evening of excessive drinking, and with the ways these symptoms may affect performance of planned activities.

This researcher explains that the popular belief that dehydration is the cause of hangover symptoms is almost certainly false. More likely, he thinks, are the hormonal changes and changes to the immune system that occur following a heavy drinking session. As we will see, not everyone agrees.

The plausibility of many of the putative myths and realities I consider will no doubt depend on the precise nature hangovers and alcohol intoxication — something I hope to shed some light on over the next few posts.

So stay tuned for more blogging about the myths and realities of alcohol… Verster JC (2008). The alcohol hangover–a puzzling phenomenon. Alcohol and alcoholism (Oxford, Oxfordshire), 43 (2), 124-6 PMID: 18182417