In July, we all got at least one day off to celebrate a very American holiday, Independence Day. If I were a betting man, I would say that many, if not most of you, participated in at least one of those grand old American pastimes: eating hotdogs or apple pie, barbecuing, going to a baseball game, floating in the pool, watching a movie, or … drinking alcohol. After your celebration of our independence, did you wake up the next day feeling like one of King George’s disgruntled drummers was practicing on your cranium? As Dr. Shoshana Ungerlieder of the July 4, 2023, TED Health podcast said last week, our culture is alcohol-centric in many ways. We drink to celebrate, to unwind, to socialize, to toast good fortune, and to commiserate with friends who are down on their luck. I thought that, given the recent festivities, this would be the perfect time to revisit some of the things alcohol does to us that we might not find so positive or healthy. I draw many of the facts and items below from that podcast, which featured Judy Grisel, a psychologist, who explained several of the physical and behavioral effects of alcohol, drinking, hangovers, and the like in that holiday episode. Sorry to be a party pooper, but here goes.
What kind of effects does drinking alcohol have on us? Are certain kinds of alcoholic beverages more likely to cause hangovers? The bottom line here is that beverages that have the most pure ethanol in them tend to cause fewer acute adverse effects in our bodies, including hangovers. Methanol, a byproduct of alcohol that gets metabolized after pure ethanol, worsens hangovers. For that reason, spirits like gin or vodka may cause fewer hangover effects than, say, whiskey, red wine, or brandy, which may have other ingredients like flavoring. Again, intuitively, more ethanol overall leads to a greater severity of hangover.
Symptoms and severity of hangovers can depend on body weight, age, genetics, and other factors, said Grisel. When we drink, alcohol slows the connections between neural cells. As the alcohol level in our system falls, the brain tends to rebound into a hyperalert, hyperactive state that can be manifested by tremors, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and decreased, less restful sleep. Cortisol, a hormone that regulates wakefulness, can also be disrupted by alcohol. Vasopressin, which helps regulate urination, can be depressed by alcohol, leading to increased output, dehydration, increased thirst, dry mouth, and headaches. Alcohol can damage our mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells, negatively affecting energy and leading to mood changes, weakness, and fatigue. Drinking can stimulate the immune system in deleterious ways, leading to damaged brain cells, decreased memory, irritable GI tracts, and can also slow the emptying of the stomach, leading to increased production of stomach acid, nausea, and vomiting. May I pass you another hotdog?
Any alcohol, any drink, any spirit, any beer, you get the idea, can cause hangover effects, as they all contain one thing: ethanol. Increased intake of water and electrolytes, eating carbs to replace the sugar imbalance caused by the drinking may help, but these won’t completely mitigate the effects of tying one on and thumbing one’s nose at the British monarchy on July 4. Sorry.
Dr. Shoshana Ungerlieder stated in her TED podcast that alcohol is technically a poison to us! The World Health Organization says that alcohol is a carcinogen that is tied to seven types of cancer. It has poisonous effects on cells, damages proteins and DNA, and is linked to heart disease, hypertension, liver disease, and disorders of the nervous system. And keep in mind, I am really only talking about “normal” use of alcohol here, not to mention the havoc that is wreaked by alcohol use disorder in all its forms. Alcohol-related risks are higher in women overall. Women usually weigh less than men and have less water in their bodies on average. They tend to be more at risk for alcohol-related heart diseases than men. Some studies, says Dr. Ungerlieder, have shown that as little as one drink per day may increase the risk of breast cancer in some at-risk women.
The basic lessons here? Any amount of alcohol may be toxic to the right person at the right time given the right set of circumstances. No amount of alcohol is completely and totally safe. If you choose to drink, keep all of these things in mind, and please, drink responsibly.
Greg Smith is a psychiatrist.