The Wall Street Journal (which should know better) recently conducted an experiment with some partygoers to explore the world of drinking and drunkenness. The results of the experiment, plus some wise words about drinking and driving, were contained in a report that carried the same headline as this column.
The WSJ report was made in August but it seemed to me better to explore this subject now; after all, we are about to enter the party season with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s parties lined up ahead of us.
As experiments go, WSJ’s effort can only be described as amateurish: People were allowed to eat and drink whatever they chose over a period of time at a party and were asked at 8:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. to blow into a breathalyzer device as a measure of blood alcohol content.
The results, reported for just three participants, in broadest outline, correspond to what we already know about alcohol and drunkenness and so there were no real surprises.
Thus, generally speaking, heavier people were less affected by drinking than smaller people. Those who drank more alcohol or drank faster got drunker. Those who drank on an empty stomach got a high BAC somewhat more quickly than those who were well fed, though the kind of food eaten is of small effect.
Asians were more sensitive to alcohol that other races and women were more susceptible than men; older folk process alcohol more slowly than younger ones. Experienced drinkers were better able to tolerate alcohol than those who drank on rare occasions.
Carbonated drinks slightly promote intoxication, all else being equal (which it rarely is) but sugary drinks and caffeinated drinks do not.
And so the answer to the question “How much alcohol does it take to get intoxicated?,” with which the WSJ article begins, is — “It depends.” Explaining this outcome required the equivalent of one full page of the Health and Wellness section of the Aug. 2 edition of the Wall Sreet Journal.
The specifics of the WSJ experiment are not particularly useful because the device used for the test, a breathalyzer, does not actually measure BAC but yields a number that is derived from it; also, the accuracy and reproducibility of the results depend on the quality and sophistication of the device.
Sometimes the results can be rather strange and false positives are possible for those with, for example, diabetes or acid reflux or on certain diets or if the measurement is made too soon after sipping.
Furthermore, the WSJ experiment made no effort to link the BAC breathalyzer score to behavior, which can be controlled to some extent by those who drink on a regular basis, or ability to undertake a task or to measure reflex time.
These days, the legal blood alcohol content level in all 50 states is 0.08 percent; some experts suggest that that amount is still too high because they can detect slowed reaction times as low as 0.04 percent or 0.05 percent BAC.
Other countries enforce lower BAC levels. Most telling might be the 0.05 percent limit enforced in much of Europe, where the availability of alcohol and its everyday and commonplace use is at least as well developed as in this country.
The most important task mentioned in connection with drinking is driving. The unfortunate thing is that some drivers, after a few drinks, have lowered inhibitions and think they are instantly and magically NASCAR-qualified; if this new-found talent be challenged by competition (real or perceived) or a dare, disaster may results.
This again is where experienced drinkers handle themselves differently from inexperienced ones: They know their reflexes are affected and slow down and take great care. This does not make drinking and driving right or smart, ever; it is much better to wait for the effects of alcohol to wear off or to walk home or take a taxi.
Alcohol is absorbed from the digestive system into the blood stream and carried to the liver where it is metabolized. But this extraordinary organ cannot keep up with alcohol intake that is too rapid; alcohol that the liver cannot remove circulates in the bloodstream as blood alcohol content and so affects every other organ of the body, especially the brain.
It is the effect of alcohol on the brain that causes the typical symptoms of inebriation such as impaired reflexes, slurred speech, befuddled behavior and loss of balance.
A useful rule of thumb is that the liver can process the alcohol in one drink in about one hour, and so drinking at that rate of consumption, especially if alcohol is taken with food so that the flow of alcohol into the bloodstream from the small intestine is somewhat slowed (but note: not reduced in amount), is unlikely to cause toxic reactions and inebriation.
From this point of view alone, drinking beer is a better choice for a night out than most other beverages because one can nurse a 12-ounce bottle of beer for an hour much more easily than 1.5 ounces of spirits (a standard drink). It is just harder to shoot down a lot of alcohol in a short time with beer than with, say, vodka martinis.
Dr. Sami Zakhari, director of the division of metabolism and health at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says that only time can unwind the effect of alcohol on the body. The liver can reduce the BAC by about 0.015 percent per hour, so a person who is at the legal limit of 0.08 percent can reach a more benign level of, say, 0.05 percent in two hours of sitting and waiting.
Drinking coffee or a taking a cold shower during this time may make one feel better, even a lot better, but has no effect on BAC.
I think all adults who choose to drink alcohol, especially in a party setting where this most useful social lubricant can get of hand, should remind themselves before setting out for the evening about the effects of alcohol and how it works on the human body, and specifically their own body.
These facts are well known and, for those still in doubt, please re-read this column.
And with that knowledge to plan ahead: Either plan to stay sober by managing drink intake and time, or plan to allow time to sober up, or plan to find a taxi to get home safely. Have fun, always, but not by testing the limits of tipsy.
— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com