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March 9, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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The Cause of, and Solution to, all of Life’s Problems

science

For many students O-Week is a time to meet, or reacquaint oneself with the cause of, and solution to all of life’s problems: alcohol. Whether or not you agree with Homer Simpson’s wisdom about drinking, chances are you’ll probably spend a bit of time doing it. So you might as well know some interesting facts about alcohol’s active ingredient.

Alcohols are essentially carbon atom(s) bonded to hydrogen atoms and an OH group. The the alcohol we call alcohol is ethanol: CH3CH2OH.

Your body converts ethanol to acetaldehyde (CH3CHO), then acetic acid (CH3COOH: vinegar!), and finally carbon dioxide and water; which you’re pretty well equipped to deal with. Thanks body!

The efficiency of the enzyme that converts acetaldehyde to acetic acid – acetaldehyde dehydrogenase – differs between people due to gene differences. There’s some speculation this might be partly because of your ancestors’ drink of choice when clean water wasn’t available: alcoholic beverages like beer (in Europe), or boiled-water drinks like tea (Asia).

If your body sucks at making acetaldehyde dehydrogenase you’ll know after a couple of drinks. You’ll feel sick and dizzy, and flush bright red because your acetaldehyde dehydrogenase is rubbish at converting acetaldehyde, which builds up in your system. But take heart – this means that you’re much less likely to binge-drink or develop alcoholism (probably because you find drinking so unpleasant). You might consider smoking cannabis instead. It has far fewer negative statistics associated with it! (I’m not implying that smoking weed is like eating five plus a day. It’s not totally risk-free. But this article is about alcohol, silly. Go read a book about it or something.)

If you indulge in the dreaded binge, you’re probably in for some post-drinking pain: the hangover. Acetaldehyde build-up has a lot to do with the more unpleasant alcohol after-effects (regardless of the l337|\|335 of your acetaldehyde dehydrogenase).

Clearly, the best way to avoid a hangover is to not get drunk. At least not horribly so. But if waking up naked, next to a stranger, with a nasty bout of pregnancy and a long walk-of-shame ahead isn’t going to stop you from regularly drinking enough to kill a small-to-medium sized dog, then the threat of a hangover probably won’t stop you at your four(teen)th drink either.

You might believe that by not mixing drinks you’ll avoid hangovers. This is a myth: “mixing drinks” doesn’t affect hangover severity. You might think: “every time I mix drinks I get the worst hangovers ever!” This probably has more to do with volume of drink rather than the specifics. Think about it: “mixing drinks” implies more than one beverage has been imbibed. It probably wasn’t switching from beer and wine to tequila shots at 3am that caused your shattering headache and day of vomiting. It was probably the fact that you drank a six-pack, a bottle of wine, and then started on tequila. That’s right: it’s not what we’re drinking; it’s how we’re drinking. I suggest you endear yourself to your flatmates, moaning about how they shouldn’t have mixed their drinks, by saying: “actually, mixing drinks doesn’t cause a hangover …”

In case this article is starting to sound like a lecture from a bossy big sister, I’ll give you an actual hangover reduction tip, for reals. By-products of fermentation called congeners are found in higher concentrations in darker coloured alcohols (red wine, rum, bourbon, whisky etc) than lighter-coloured drinks like gin and vodka. Sticking to lighter coloured drinks can lower your chance of a hangover.

You know those people who look at you wisely after a big night out and advise you to drink lots of water before bed? Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that drinking lots of it causes dehydration. Alcohol interferes with receptors in your hypothalamus (in your brain) that detect the concentration of solutes in your blood to help decide how much water your cells need (pretty important in keeping them functioning – and making sure they don’t shrivel, or burst).

Your hypothalamus regulates the release of anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) from your pituitary gland which travels to your kidneys and regulates how much water is reabsorbed into your blood during urine production. Alcohol inhibits ADH release so there’s not much reabsorption going on: something to ponder on your fifth trip to the toilet to dehydrate yourself some more. Dehydration causes that dry, ‘furry’ mouth and pounding headache.

Drinking water before bed (or even better, alternating drinks with water) can help counter dehydration. Water before bed can also help dilute the alcohol left in your stomach – which is good because alcohol causes your stomach to secrete elevated levels of hydrochloric acid, leading to vomiting.

A final tip for your illustrious drinking career: steer clear of paracetamol for drinking-induced pain (including hangovers). Mixing alcohol and paracetamol can wreak havoc on your liver, and can potentially cause a slow and painful death by liver failure. Happy drinking!

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