I drink, therefore I am
I PHONED a friend after lunch he other day to thank him for the very entertaining dinner party he and his wife had given the night before to celebrate his 60th birthday. I wanted to welcome him again to the springtime of his senescence and enquire whether the party had gone on much longer than the early morning hour I had taken my leave.
I had wisely refused a final single-malt for the carretera and could see my friend was determined to kill the generous amount left in the bottle. It took a while before he got to the phone and when he spoke it was obvious that he was under a weather system that would have had Whitbread Round- the-World crews trembling in their sea-boots.
His voice sounded like the unlubricated gears of a mine-shaft elevator. He gave a strangled groan, a cough and muttered an obscenity that confirmed that he was still very hungover, a condition that has been described as the downside of alcohol consumption. Having suffered from the complaint myself on occasion, I decided to make enquiries into the phenomenon and try to discover whether it could be avoided by any other method than the total denouncement of the offending substance.
Drinking and its less pleasant brother, drunkenness, have puzzled people for thousands of years. Aristotle, the observant Greek, asked in his Problemata: “Why is it that to those who are very drunk, everything seems to revolve in a circle? Why is it that to those who are drunk, one thing at which they are looking sometimes appears to be many? Why are the drunken more easily moved to tears? Why is it that the tongue of those who are drunk, stumbles?” He might have also asked: “Why the bloody hell do you feel so bad the next morning?”
To get some answers I called my editor, who had also been at the party. His wife told me he was sitting on the terrace with a packet of economy size frozen peas on his head and it probably was not a good time to call him to the phone. I then consulted Harold McGee’s book, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a treatise that discusses almost everything known to man but particularly the ins and outs of food and drink. His chapter on imbibing alcohol reports firstly the effects of alcohol are both direct and indirect. The direct effect is what we call drunkenness, the indirect is the hangover and the physical problems associated with alcoholism, like cirrhosis. Until I read this book, I thought cirrhosis were clouds.
Alcohol is absorbed not only in the small intestine, where most food is absorbed, McGee writes, but to some extent in the colon and stomach as well. It takes from two to six hours for all the alcohol in a given drink to be taken up by the body. The main factor seems to be the circumstances under which the alcohol is ingested. If the stomach is empty, the alcohol is rapidly absorbed. If there is other food present, it has to wait its turn to come in contact with the walls of the digestive tract, accounting for some delay. Alcohol is absorbed more slowly from beer than it is from wine, and more slowly from wine than from distilled liquors. This is because beer, wine and liquors contain progressively fewer other substances to compete with alcohol for position along the intestinal wall. Fascinating.
Once absorbed from the digestive tract, alcohol is rapidly distributed to all body fluids and tissues, apparently crossing cell membranes without any trouble. Because the degree to which we are intoxicated depends on the concentration of alcohol in the cells, larger people can usually drink more than small people without being drunker because they have a greater volume of body fluids in which to dilute the alcohol.
Also, women generally have a lower tolerance to booze than men, probably because fat accounts for a greater fraction of their body weight. Sorry ladies, but that is what the book says.
This complete diffusion throughout the body is what makes possible simple breath tests for determining the alcohol content of the blood. In the lungs, alcohol passes through the capillary walls into the air in a fixed proportion to its concentration in the blood, so that a measure of the alcohol content of expired air can be converted to blood content and thereby to the degree of intoxication and thereby to how big your fine is and thereby how many months you will be without your driving licence.
The key to recovering from drunkenness is actually burning it off for energy. The problem is that the body’s biochemical machinery is not equipped to handle large amounts of alcohol. An evolutionary oversight, one would think. A single enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase or ADH, is required in the initial step of breaking alcohol down but we only have small quantities of it and this limits the rate at which we can remove alcohol from our system. When it is totally engaged, ADH works at a constant rate. In the average adult, this is about seven grams of alcohol per hour. This means that the alcohol in four ounces of whisky or two pints of beer will take five to six hours to disappear from the blood. Someone who drinks a bottle of whisky or eight pints of beer a day will never clear his (or her) blood of alcohol.
Our absolute dependence on ADH to detoxify ourselves has certain unfortunate consequences, writes Mr. McGee. While exercise helps us burn food calories more rapidly than we would while sitting, alcohol is not available as an energy source until ADH has worked on it: so exercise will not sober us up any faster than sleeping will. Nor does any other food or folk remedy you might know. And because an excess of alcohol saturates, or completely occupies a part of the liver’s enzymatic system, some by-products tend to accumulate faster than can be dealt with. One of these, lactate, enters the bloodstream as lactic acid, a substance that accumulates in muscle tissue during strenuous exercise and is associated with the sensation of fatigue. Finally, there are genetic variations in the exact structure and operation of ADH and related enzymes and these seem to be involved in the sensitivity, manifested by such symptoms as facial flushing, that some populations have to even moderate amounts of alcohol. And to finish the good news, remember this: as we age, our livers actually become less efficient at dealing with alcohol, so our tolerance slowly declines.
One glass or two?
My research for this article has proved extremely depressing and I took a glass or two of red wine to perk me up, got back on the web and typed in drunkenness. I found a diatribe from animal rights activists. In their opinions, our common descriptions of leglessness are often derogatory to animals: drunk as a skunk and pissed as a newt are two of the offending phrases they hope to have banned. It is true you rarely see a drunk skunk and the only newt I can think of that might get pissed occasionally is Newt Gingrich.
Someone once remarked that drunk is when you have too much to drink and hangover is when some of you is sober enough to realise how drunk the rest of you is. The actual word hangover came into usage at the turn of this century and originated in the USA. Other countries use expressions that are more colourful, like katzenjammer in German which literally means wailing of cats, baksmalla in Swedish (kick back) and gueule de bois in French, which translates as wooden throat. Whatever you call it, the principal symptoms are the same.