When it comes to alcohol, the line between fiction and fact is often blurry. Whether it’s at a party with friends or through pop culture references, there are quite a few things about drinking alcohol that get misconstrued.
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Things like so-called hangover cures, effects of different types of alcohol and even how much alcohol we can handle.
And while it may seem harmless to live by some of these “tips,” some of these alcohol myths can put your health at risk.
Chemical dependency specialist Joseph Janesz, PhD, LICDC, helps clear up the confusion around alcohol so you can drink smarter and more responsibly.
One of the biggest misconceptions around alcohol is that it gives you energy, which may motivate you to drink more, especially during social situations.
“Especially throughout the holiday season, many of us struggle with fatigue and excess stress,” Dr. Janesz notes. “We may look to alcohol at a holiday party to dissipate that fatigue, enhance our energy level and relieve stress.”
But alcohol is a brain-depressant. It first acts by shutting off executive functions like judgment, mood control and natural inhibitions. Some people experience this as a sense of thrill and excitement. But others experience the opposite: sleepiness, lethargy and even a depressed feeling.
The bottom line? Alcohol interferes with normal brain activity, no matter how you feel when you drink.
Using any kind of alcoholic beverage to help you sleep is always going to backfire, even if in the moment it feels like it’s helping.
Normally, your body cycles through light and deep phases of sleep. Alcohol inhibits refreshing REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and later on causes “REM rebound,” with nightmares and trouble sleeping.
Repeated alcohol use seriously disturbs sleep and makes it difficult to re-establish a normal sleep pattern. Often, this leads to more drinking or to sedative abuse in the quest for sleep.
You may have heard that an alcoholic drink — especially something like an Irish coffee or hot toddy — can warm your body up when it’s cold. But that’s just a temporary sensation you’re feeling.
“Alcohol intake may make your skin feel warm,” acknowledges Dr. Janesz. “Yet it deceptively lowers the core temperature of your body.”
Your body normally stores warm blood in its core to preserve important organ functions. Alcohol artificially dilates blood vessels in your extremities, allowing warm blood to escape from your core into your peripheral circulation, where it cools. The result: Your body can no longer keep vital organs warm as your overall temperature drops.
In other words, when you’re dealing with harsh conditions, don’t depend on a drink to keep you toasty.
There’s also a lot of myths around the different types of alcohol and how they affect you.And while drinking a casual beer with friends may feel less intense than a spirited cocktail, they’re more similar than you might think.
According to Dr. Janesz, whether you’re drinking a pale ale or a Moscow Mule, you’re typically consuming a similar amount of alcohol. But regardless, “Any alcohol beverage you consume will have a similar effect on your body and on your ability to function.”
This myth can especially be harmful if it causes you to drink more than you can handle — so always pay attention to the alcohol content in your drinks and be honest with what your body can manage.
While it may feel like coffee is bringing you back to life in many ways, you shouldn’t depend on it to get alcohol out of your system. In truth, coffee has no real effect on your blood alcohol level, which is the major factor in determining your level of intoxication.
“Drinking coffee or other caffeine products after having one too many drinks can trick your brain into making you feel energized and more awake or alert,” warns Dr. Janesz.
In other words, coffee may just mask the feeling of being drunk, which is still not good. In reality, you need to know if you’ve had too many or not. “The alertness can create the perception that you aren’t as drunk or intoxicated as you actually are, and you may decide to have another drink or to drive home,” he adds.
Drinking tends to produce higher blood alcohol concentrations in women than men because of a difference in body weight and composition. This leads to a greater degree of intoxication for women.
“Alcohol disperses in water, and women have less water in their bodies than men,” explains Dr. Janesz. “So, if a woman and man of the same weight consume the same amount of alcohol, her blood alcohol concentration will usually rise more rapidly than his.”
But while women may reach the “drunk driving” limit — 0.08 percent blood alcohol — sooner, alcohol can impair driving at much lower blood alcohol levels. So “don’t drink and drive” remains sound advice for everyone.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase that a couple of cocktails can “take the edge off” after a long week at work, you may believe the myth that alcohol can calm you down. And while alcohol can initially make you feel looser and at ease (again, because it’s a depressant), the effects don’t last long. In fact, alcohol may actually cause more anxiety the day after.
So, while you may temporarily feel at ease in the moment, you can feel more stressed the day after.
If you use alcohol as a way to numb your symptoms of anxiety, this can also make the symptoms worse down the line — due to the fact that you’re not learning how to cope with your emotions properly.
“Many of us look for a quick fix to resolve our pain. We all have developed habits of reinforcing immediate gratification and needing instant results,” explains Dr. Janesz. “Another issue with numbing your symptoms of anxiety is that over time, we develop a tolerance to alcohol and we are required to drink more alcohol for us to have the same numbing effect.”
If a recent doctor’s appointment told you that your liver is in good shape, don’t think that’s a free excuse to drink heavily. In fact, drinking can affect other parts of your body as well. This includes your heart, blood pressure, kidneys and mental health.
As Dr. Janesz explains, when you ingest alcohol, most of the alcohol is absorbed through the mucous membrane of your throat and esophagus, where it enters your bloodstream and compromises all parts of your body.
“Alcohol is also inflammatory and increases your risk of cancer and other diseases,” he says.
You may think that mixing an energy drink with your cocktail will help combat alcohol’s drowsiness effects. But this isn’t a good idea.
For the same reasons why you shouldn’t mix alcohol with caffeine, this energy-drink combo can also cause masked intoxication — which can lead to consumption of more alcohol than your body can handle. It can also cause increased dehydration, sleep disruption and even heart issues.
Last but not least, the “hair of the dog” method is another alcohol myth that gets repeated one too many times. Essentially, this “trick” claims that you can kill your hangover with more alcohol. Of all the shady hangover cures out there, this one may be the most harmful.
This is because while it may feel like you’re taking the edge off your hangover and nausea by downing more drinks, doing this will only prolong your recovery process. All you’re doing is adding more toxins to your body that’s already working overtime to clean out the alcohol you’ve already consumed.
Drinking responsibly doesn’t just come down to the amount you consume, but also how you consume it. You may hear a lot of tales around how to make drinking “easier” or “healthier,” but in reality, there aren’t any shortcuts or magic tricks out there. That’s why it’s best to consume alcohol safely and in moderation — without buying into any myths.