The holidays are times for celebrating and many of us do so by spending extra time with family, friends & coworkers, attending parties and special events commemorating this special time of year. As part of this celebration, many of us also indulge in holiday goodies as well as festive cocktails, wines and spirits. Although it is a time to “make the season bright”, the not-so-bright-side (the downside) of consuming extra calories, sweets and especially alcohol is that it can put a damper on our holiday cheer. This is because doing so puts our bodies under extra stress. We can become acutely aware of how much stress this puts on our body when we develop symptoms of having had too much alcohol – otherwise commonly referred to as having the dreaded “hangover.” There’s a lot of advice “out there” when it comes to strategies to stave off hangovers but most lack sound scientific backing. In this article you will learn what’s really going on inside your body when you may have imbibed a bit too much as well as what you can do to best prevent a hangover from happening. You will also discover tips that may help you to recover faster if you do. The Weo Foundation’s mission of education is grounded in science that you can trust!
What Happens in Our Body When We Drink Alcohol?
When you drink alcohol, you actually don’t “digest” it, you just absorb it. Once you take a sip and it hits your stomach it quickly makes its way to your bloodstream, then traveling to every part of your body. Alcohol affects your brain first, then your kidneys, lungs and liver. Regardless of the types of tissue it affects, the body identifies alcohol as a toxin that needs to be quickly and efficiently flushed from the system. The liver, for the most part, is responsible for breaking down and detoxing alcohol. The type of alcohol in drinks is called ethanol.
The liver’s work on alcohol (ethanol) follows two very simple steps. The first step is to convert ethanol to acetaldehyde by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). The body recognizes acetaldehyde as a very toxic chemical and it is responsible for the common symptoms of hangovers, so it wants to get rid of it asap! The second step is converting the nasty acetaldehyde to the harmless acetate by the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Acetate is hooked onto coenzyme A and the resulting acetyl-CoA can be used to create energy or it can be utilized for the synthesis of fatty acids. A smaller fraction of ethanol is metabolized by cytochrome P450 2E1 (CYP2E1) in the liver and in the brain by the enzyme catalase.
On average, your liver can metabolize about one alcoholic beverage, which in the US is defined as having 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits per hour. If you drink faster than that, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises and you become intoxicated. The higher your BAC, the more intoxicated you may feel. The rate at which your BAC increases differs from person to person and is dependent upon the type of alcohol you drink (how strong it is), how fast it’s consumed and lastly, whether it’s accompanied by food. Food will slow down absorption, slightly, but not reliably and differs from food to food and from person to person. So don’t rely too heavily on the old advice to make sure you eat when you drink to avoid the negative effects it can produce!
Alcohol is also a known diuretic, so it makes you urinate more often, which can lead to dehydration. The negative effects of dehydration are ubiquitous creating a double-whammy when it comes to how your body responds to alcohol, as water the main way your body detoxifies – think bile flow from your liver (it’s 98% water!), urine made by your kidneys and sweat. All of those are predominantly water. You can easily see why having a toxin on board (alcohol) and being low on water can be a train wreck for your body!
Some other common myths beyond the adage that eating when we’re drinking will prevent hangovers include using caffeine. Although it may make you feel more awake, it doesn’t help break down alcohol. You will be just as intoxicated and impaired, even if you feel a little less intoxicated. The same goes for taking cold showers, exercising, sweating it out and getting fresh air. These things might help you feel more alert, but they have no impact on your blood alcohol concentration or on the effects of alcohol.
Now that we’ve dunked some of the common advice that may not work so well for staving off hangovers, let’s talk about what may work.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
If you’ve had too much alcohol, there’s no way to sober up quickly. The only thing that can sober you up is time, so that the alcohol can be eliminated from your body. We just mentioned how your body relies on water to detoxify from alcohol. This being said, a good strategy for prevention is to come into any holiday gathering being hydrated! On average most of us are not walking around hydrated enough. According to the lay press, 75% of Americans are dehydrated. The medical literature states that it’s just under 30%. Nonetheless, we don’t want to be one of the under-hydrated, so staying on top of your water consumption and needs is key. Knowing the signs and symptoms of dehydration which we covered in this article is worth a read, as is our piece on how to best track your daily intake of water.
Beyond intake of plain water, we can up our water game by consuming water that has gone through the process of electrolysis. This is where water is split apart using electrodes, producing new species in water that are beneficial for health. One of these molecules that is created in the electrolysis process is called molecular hydrogen. Molecular hydrogen’s positive effects in the human body have been studied for decades! So much published, peer-reviewed scientific studies exist is it mind-blowing! These results range from improving exercise performance and gut health to activation of our anti-aging pathway in the body, called the Nrf2 pathway. When molecular hydrogen gets into our cells by simple diffusion, it sets off a cascade of the production of important endogenous (your own) antioxidants like glutathione, superoxide dismutase and catalase. All those enzymes work to decrease inflammation in the body by scavenging up free radicals. When we drink alcohol our bodies have to work extra hard to get rid of it; if we can cut down on the amount of oxidative stress it is already under by drinking water enriched with molecular hydrogen this can be a great strategy to try to lessen the effects of alcohol.
Another important facet of drinking electrolyzed water is that this process “reduces” water – which means the Oxidation Reduction Potential (ORP) becomes more negative. The healthiest foods have negative ORPs, having the ability to reduce free radicals in the body – they get rid of them by donating an electron, then making the radicals no longer damaging. Our bodies are constantly dealing with toxins from our environment such as microplastics, air pollution and heavy metals that we must get rid of to stay healthy. Adding alcohol into our systems puts extra stress on us and thereby we need extra antioxidant support. Reduced electrolyzed water can help with this imbalance.
Truly enjoy the holiday season by staying hydrated!
By Kelly Halderman, Chief Health Officer at Weo.
- The genetic basis of alcoholism: Multiple phenotypes, many genes, complex networks – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Alcohol-metabolism-Ethanol-is-converted-to-acetaldehyde-by-alcohol-dehydrogenase-ADH_fig2_221846085 [accessed 8 Dec, 2022]