A Hangover Free Holiday

Photo by Ehioma Osih on Pexels.com

Thanksgiving is almost here and we are about to embark on the season of overindulgence. With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to dive into the mechanisms of alcohol and its effect on the body.

Let me start by saying that I am not anti-alcohol, but I am definitely anti-hangover.  So, as we plan for our month of celebrations, let’s take a look at what happens to our bodies when we drink alcohol so that we can make better decisions as to whether to imbibe, and if so, how much.

Alcohol Metabolism

Now, alcohol metabolism has several steps and can get complicated, so let’s just stick with the basics.  Most importantly, alcohol has no nutritional value and is ultimately a poison. At 7 calories per gram, its calorie density is closer to fat (9 calories per gram) than carbohydrates or protein (4 calories per gram each). 

The human body has evolved to metabolize alcohol using an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase…let’s call it ADH for short.  Interestingly, this AHD enzyme diminishes as we age, and different people simply have different amounts of the enzyme. Simply, how quickly your body metabolizes alcohol is largely related to your genetic makeup. This might explain why some people seem to be unaffected by a night of drinking while others spend the next day crashed on the sofa binge-watching “The Great British Baking Show.” 

Fat Burning is Put on Hold

As alcohol is absorbed, the ADH gets to work right away and breaks down the alcohol into a poison (acetaldehyde) that must be excreted through breath, urine, and sweat. So, when you drink alcohol, the body says, “let’s put the liver to work and get rid of this stuff.”  All other metabolic activities are put on hold, so instead of getting to work on the food in your stomach, it’s only focus is to get rid of the alcohol. The remaining food get stored by the body as energy (aka, fat).  This process often occurs overnight which is why you wake up sweaty after about 5 hours and have trouble going back to sleep. Your body is working hard and by morning it is exhausted. After this overnight battle with alcohol, fluid and blood sugar stores are depleted and you may experience other common hangover symptoms, such as nausea, headache, and hunger.  

The good news is that you can avoid the dreaded hangover by making some conscious decisions about your alcohol intake.

Benefits of Food and Water

You’ve probably heard that you should eat with alcohol to slow it absorption. But why?  There are really two reasons. First, alcohol is initially absorbed in the stomach and food physically blocks the absorption through the wall of the stomach. As a result, it takes longer for the alcohol to enter the bloodstream. Second, food keeps alcohol in the stomach longer delaying its passage into the intestinal tract. Once in the small intestine the alcohol is absorbed very quickly. 

It’s also important to drink water with alcohol.  The reason is actually very simple.  Alcohol metabolism leads to increased urination, sweat, and ultimately, dehydration.  Dehydration is the likely reason for that post-party headache. Drink a glass of water with each drink and you may drink less and feel much better the next day. 

How Much Alcohol is Okay?

Plan on limiting your alcohol consumption based on your age and size.  As I said previously, our ability to metabolize alcohol slows as we age due to declining levels of ADH and an overall slower metabolism.  

In this case, size also matters.  Alcohol is ultimately absorbed into all the tissues of the body except for bone and fat.  A higher fat percentage will lead to a lower percentage of available lean tissue for alcohol absorption.  So, people with a higher body fat percentage can drink more than a similarly sized person with less fat.  In addition, a larger person simply has more blood than a smaller person. This means that if two people have the same amount of alcohol, the smaller person will have a higher percentage of alcohol in their bloodstream.  

Because women are on average smaller than men, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for daily alcohol consumption are gender specific: no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. Specifically, one drink equals: 12 oz. beer (5%), 5 oz. wine (12%), or 1.5 oz. hard liquor (80 proof, gin, whiskey, vodka, etc.)

In my opinion, the CDC guideline is too broad and does not consider variations in size and metabolism.  For some (myself included), it is not advisable to have even one drink every day, while other women can handle much more. With that in mind, it is very important to be honest with yourself and adjust your alcohol consumption to your body.  And, if you don’t drink, there is no reason to start.  

Tips for Managing Alcohol Intake

In social situations, it can be difficult to really count your drinks properly.  You’re likely having fun and not interested in monitoring your behavior.  Here are a few ideas that may help.

  • Stop drinking when you start to feel the alcohol (“the buzz”).  This may not work for everyone, but it is a good strategy when you have no idea how many times Uncle Joe has topped off your glass of wine.
  • Drink a large glass of water between every drink. This will slow your drinking and fill you up.  It will also quench your thirst and stop you from chugging beer and wine with those salty bar snacks.
  • Wait 20 minutes between drinks. This will give your body time to metabolize the alcohol and signal your brain that maybe you’ve had enough.
  • Eat a snack or meal with protein and carbohydrate while drinking.  This will slow absorption and help you manage your intake.  You may also find that you were really just hungry and no longer want any more to drink.
  • If you’re at home, use a container like a measuring cup or small carafe and portion your drink for the evening.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  • When you are offered your first drink, pick something nonalcoholic and just say, “I’m thirsty.” The drinkers in the room will likely refrain from offering you more alcoholic drinks after the initial one. Trust me on this, no one cares what you are drinking.
  • Move your workout to a few hours before the event, and then have a small protein and carbohydrate snack (about 200 calories).  The exercise-induced endorphins and serotonin will remain with you for a few hours and will mimic some of the sensation you get with that initial cocktail. In addition, your post-workout snack will stabilize your blood sugar and help you manage the temptation to overindulge.
  • Do not drink alcohol on consecutive days.  This break will give your body time to replenish ADH stores.  

For some, these strategies will not work. If you find that you cannot control your intake, do not hesitate to seek help. There are many resources available, including online tools and meetings.

Final Thoughts
Alcohol does have some redeeming qualities. It is fun to enjoy drinks with friends. Alcohol brings about a sense of relaxation and euphoria. It is an appetite stimulant, and in small quantities, it can relax the nervous system to aid digestion.

You can absolutely enjoy a drink or two with your holiday celebration keeping in mind that a little planning and control will help you stay healthy throughout the season.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s