On Super Bowl Sunday, American football fans are expected to consume approximately 50 million cases of beer while watching the game.
There is more myth about alcohol than about any other single food group (except perhaps oysters). This should not be surprising because alcohol was already ancient when the Vikings (the Nordic ones, not the NFL Vikings) celebrated their adventures.
People learned to ferment alcohol about five minutes after learning to grow grain. Mankind has at least a 9,000-year-old relationship with alcohol. This relationship is more deeply entrenched than even human history would suggest.
The ability to metabolize alcohol is present in almost all animals. That’s curious, because I don’t ever remember seeing any pink elephants on bar stools, at least not until much later in the evening!
Alcohol is so easy to make; your body actually ferments a little alcohol on its own. To make it more conventionally in a brewery requires only some carbohydrate (sugar), water, and a pinch of yeast. The carbohydrate can be almost anything from grains for most commercial production to bread crusts, which reportedly work well in prison stills.
The yeast is a little one-celled organism that can be found in the environment (blowing in the wind and on raw foods). You can simply leave a pot of sugar water open and yeast will find its way into the batch.
Yeasts are clever little organisms that eat carbohydrates and excrete alcohol and carbon dioxide (bubbles). The cereal you ate this morning is fermenting in your intestines right this minute. It has everything it needs (yeast, carbs and water) to produce an average of 3 grams of alcohol per day. That’s about a quarter bottle of beer.
What happens to all this beer, or at least the water portion? Ultimately, you could be making a lot of bathroom runs this Sunday and perhaps missing some entertaining Super Bowl commercials. Everyone thinks it’s the water in the beer, but alcohol is a diuretic.
Then there is the alcohol. As far as your body is concerned, alcohol is alcohol. A beer is the same as a 2-ounce shot of liquor or a glass of wine. Any of these will cause your blood alcohol to go up about 0.02. Have four drinks and the average person will be legally drunk and 0.08.
Thankfully, our livers help sober us up. A liver will be busy getting rid of a drink every hour or so, decreasing your blood alcohol by 0.02. Simple math, yet so many are surprised.
What is it about drinking that makes for that special brand of misery the next day? People will tell you it’s toxins in the liquor or tannins in the wine. Drinking clear liquor – like white wine – surely makes a difference, right? If only that were true.
It’s the alcohol in the beverage that’s the problem. Ethanol is all good fun, but the liver oxidizes it into an aldehyde, which is 30 times as toxic as ethanol. It causes a headache, nausea and light sensitivity, with a little diarrhea thrown in.
Since alcohol is a diuretic, you are dehydrated and less able to tolerate the aldehyde. One of the liver’s many jobs is keeping the glucose level in your blood very even. Since the brain runs on blood glucose, this is a pretty important function.
Drink enough and your liver is too busy to babysit your blood glucose and your brain stops working. If that happens too early on Sunday, it’s doubtful this will be a memorable Super Bowl.
It pains me to tell you that there is no good medical evidence for any treatment that prevents or cures a hangover. The alcohol simply must be metabolized (to that nasty aldehyde).
Coffee doesn’t speed up recovery from a hangover and “hair of the dog” just delays the inevitable. However, there are a number of imaginative treatment suggestions. Among those that seem almost reasonable are hydration, aspirin, and B6, which can be combined with supplemental oxygen if desired.
Of course, you could be one of the lucky ones who “chose” your parents well. Approximately 25 percent of people don’t get hangovers – and it’s genetic!
For the other 75 percent of us, there is a very good strategy to avoid a Super Bowl hangover – it’s called moderate drinking.
Take care, and enjoy the game.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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