If you’re a little fuzzy on the details of last night’s celebration, imagine the poor caveman. Oooh, jackpot, he thought, following his nose to a pile of fermented fruit.
Little did he understand why after eating it he’d get a shiner he couldn’t explain, totally leave his club somewhere, and embarrass half his social network with unguarded declarations of affection.
Some evolutionary biologists argue it’s thanks to the natural presence of ethanol in the environment – and many humans’ natural tendency to put it into their bodies – that whatever that was some of us drank last night didn’t kill us. Our bodies evolved to process ethanol out of necessity.
Thanks, caveman. Here’s to you.
What doesn’t kill us, though, can give us raging hangovers. Our modern advantage: We know why hangovers happen and how to prevent them. Or, if it’s too late for that, at least make them less miserable.
Some preventions and some cures for hangovers:
Beer and wine are just as intoxicating as hard liquor. Each drink contains the same amount of alcohol, whether it’s a 12-ounce beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, a 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.
Depending on genetics, gender and metabolism, an adult’s body can typically safely handle one or two drinks an hour, said Jaye Hopkins, who teaches chemistry at Spokane Community College and lectures on the chemistry involved in alcohol consumption.
The federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate alcohol consumption as one drink a day for women and up to two a day for men. (That really means one or two on any single day, by the way – it’s not an average.)
At that rate, Hopkins said, enzymes in the lining of the stomach and in the liver can process the alcohol, minimizing the amount that enters the bloodstream.
“Once you surpass your body’s ability to perfectly metabolize … you’re creating a very tiny little hangover in the making, and then it just catches up with you,” she said. “And it’s usually when you wake up in the morning.”
The enzymes that break down ethanol are highly concentrated in the lining of the stomach and in the liver. Some people have more of these enzymes than others, which makes them better drinkers, in terms of not getting sick, Hopkins said.
Frequent drinkers build up the enzymes in their stomachs over time, enabling them to process more alcohol – building tolerance – and feel less sick afterward. An alcoholic, Hopkins said, might show up at the hospital regularly with blood-alcohol levels that would kill an average person.
But your tolerance also depends on the biology you were born with.
“You can train to a certain extent, but your genes also play a role,” Hopkins said.
Many people of East Asian descent, for example, lack the ethanol busters – drinking makes them feel flushed and generally miserable.
Enzyme levels also depend on gender. Basically, Hopkins said, men’s stomachs are 100 percent better at metabolizing ethanol. For most men, about 30 percent of the alcohol they drink gets metabolized in the stomach, never reaching the bloodstream. It’s closer to 10 percent to 15 percent for women.
Feel better after a gin night than a bourbon night? There’s a reason for that.
The kind of alcohol people drink is ethyl alcohol, aka ethanol, sometimes known as grain alcohol. There are other kinds, too.
“Ethanol is the one that gets us drunk, as opposed to killing us right away,” Hopkins said.
Isopropyl alcohol is commonly called rubbing alcohol. Methyl alcohol, aka methanol, used to be called wood alcohol, because it was made by distilling wood.
Ideally, you wouldn’t drink isopropyl alcohol or methanol. In reality, you can’t avoid methanol, which occurs naturally in the environment – it’s found in tiny amounts in orange juice, for example.
Methanol is also found in some of the alcohol people drink.
Chemicals called congeners are created or added during alcohol’s fermentation or aging process, helping to develop the beverage’s taste or smell.
Methanol is a congener found in the greatest amounts in dark drinks, such as whiskey, brandy, bourbon and red wine.
Vodka or gin, on the other hand, contain much less methanol.
And while the human body can process a certain amount of ethanol at a time, Hopkins said, methanol is a different story. It’s when the body starts to process methanol that a person feels sick.
Poorly produced homemade spirits can contain a lot of methanol. Nearly 200 people died in India in 2011 after drinking bootleg booze tainted with methanol.
Prohibition-era history is rife with tales of lawbreakers blinded by bathtub hooch.
A third of an ounce of methanol can blind you. It destroys the optic nerve. An ounce can kill you.
Drinks that are carbonated or caffeinated can increase the speed at which the body absorbs alcohol – making drinkers drunker faster, according to the Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Education at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. That’s because they tend to irritate the lining of the stomach, increasing the rate of absorption.
That goes for beverages containing a lot of carbon dioxide, such as sparkling wine. It also includes anything made with a carbonated mixer.
Protein in your stomach keeps alcohol there longer, allowing it to be slowly metabolized instead of moving into your bloodstream. Carbohydrates keep your blood sugar up, so you don’t feel as sick.
“Heard of hair of the dog?” wrote Spokane resident Jessica Lauren in response to a request for favorite hangover cures. “I like to drink a screwdriver or a beer, with a packet of Emergen-C mixed in! … It seems to work for me!”
The “hair of the dog” cure – reflecting the idea that like cures like – is fundamentally scientifically correct when it comes to hangovers, Hopkins said.
Because the body is better at processing ethanol than methanol – and there’s a good chance it’s methanol that’s making you sick – a shot of ethanol should do you good.
“If you take a take a shot of something like vodka, you’re basically telling your body ‘Hey, stop metabolizing the methanol that’s making me sick,’ ” Hopkins said. “ ‘Here’s some ethanol – work on this.’ ”
In the meantime, the methanol is allowed to slip out of your body – through your breath, sweat and urine – while your body starts to metabolize, in a healthful way, the ethanol.
Metabolizing ethanol takes a lot of water, Hopkins said. Hangover headaches have much to do with dehydration and low blood sugar that result.
So vodka with orange juice may work even better against a hangover than just the alcohol. The juice – its tiny methanol content is inconsequential, Hopkins said – will rehydrate you and raise your blood sugar.
The metabolization process also creates a lot of free radicals, which may contribute to a host of diseases. Orange juice also contains of a lot of antioxidants, which combat free radicals. (To make it a meal, whip up an egg dish, too. The body also uses the cysteine in them to fight free radicals.)
A bloody mary might work, too. Tomato juice is sugary.
In response to a call for Spokesman-Review readers’ favorite hangover cures, some swore by commercial hangover-fighting concoctions packed with vitamins and nutrients, or plain old-fashioned Gatorade.
“Gotta have menudo,” a traditional Mexican soup made with beef stomach, wrote Kelly Hitchcock Bundy. “Don’t know why but it cures what ails ya!”
Other hangover cures that circulated well before the Internet were as varied as Tums and pickle juice.
Actually, Hopkins said, pickle juice could work. It contains water, sugar and salt, which would provide hydration and electrolytes.
“It’s Grandma’s Gatorade, basically,” she said.