Rebunking The Washington Post's Debunkage

The The Washington Post ran an article debunking some of the popular myths about alcohol.

Sadly, much of this article is inaccurate.

It claims to use scientific studies, however it mis-represents scientific data, and debunks these "myths" inaccurately.

There's a reason they're called myths... because they're true.

1) Drinking coffee will get you sober faster. False (says the Washington Post). The "science" that they offer is that coffee "may wake you up but it will not lower your blood alcohol level". Well first and foremost, I guess we need to define our terms. What is meant by "sober"? When asking someone if they're sober, they generally don't mean "what's the alcohol per volume of your blood?". They mean, "Are you cool to drive?". Insobriety is not a medical condition, it's a temporary personality and skill-set condition (blood alcohol concentration IS a medical condition).

So, can coffee increase your awareness and alertness?

Search your feelings, I can't answer this for you, only you can answer it for yourself.

I'm not encouraging anybody to feel okay with driving after they've been drinking simply because you drank a cup of coffee. It's sort of like condoms for middle-schoolers. Some of you kids are going to drink and drive no matter what you read on The Inappropriate Thesaurus. As much as I despise this fact, you might as well feel more awake while you're doing it. There's no need for innocent bystanders to get killed just because the Washington Post told you that coffee does nothing to sober you up. This seems pretty irresponsible to me, and I expect them to run a correction (several, actually).

More to the point... coffee can increase your body's metabolic rate. Similar to (but less effective than) running wind sprints (which is shown to help burn off alcohol 15% faster than sitting still), caffeine can actually help you metabolize your blood alcohol quicker. So, while the presence of coffee in the body may not directly remove the alcohol, it gets your insides moving quicker to burn all that off--and YOU may be moving around more too if you if you're suddenly feeling more awake.

FURTHERMORE!!!

If you want to get really literal about all this... I'm here to tell you that--it's quite frankly a scale of proportions, but--drinking ANY LIQUIDS that are non-alcoholic, will decrease your blood alcohol concentration. How? By increasing the volume of your blood.

You remember that lady who died because she chugged a gallon of water in five minutes for an on-air fraternity hazing? Well the reason she died is because blood is made up of liquids and solids, and one of the liquids is water. The amount of water contained in your blood is a result of different things, but it's directly related to how much water you drink. All of the other stuff in there comes from the bone-marrow and liver, and probably a few other places... but the water in there comes almost exclusively from your mouth. So, when she drank a gallon of water, the amount of "extra liquid" making up her blood plasma spiked very quickly, causing all her blood vessels to expand. Sadly, the brain is a complex computer and doesn't have quite as much wiggle room within it's internal components.. and you've seen what happens when you spill water on a laptop. Well, think of that gallon of water as alca seltzer and think of her brain as a seagull's stomach.

Why am getting all gruesome about this poor young lady's death? To bring up a math equation.

100lbs woman gets drunk drinking 4 beers at 5% alc/12oz. (12 oz x .05) = .6 oz of actual alcohol per beer (a bit less than half a shot glass [1.5 oz], which would usually be filled with a 40% abv liquor--just so we can all mentally envision the physical ethanol). The amount of BLOOD in an average adult is, what, ten pints? So we'll call that 150oz for easy math. 4 portions of .6 oz of alcohol enters the blood stream, and now 150oz of blood has 2.4 oz of alcohol IN IT.

The blood alcohol concentration of that woman is 2.4 ounces of alcohol per 150 ounces of blood.

Now lets say we're chugging 24oz of water. To be fair, I really can't say how much of that water will hang out in her blood stream and how much will goes straight through to the bladder. It can't be completely negligible because it keeps athletes going, and a gallon was enough to pop a girl's brain like a water-balloon. However, alcohol IS a diuretic, so lets guess as modestly as possible to throw all the reasonable bias against my argument. Lets say, ultra conservatively, that only 3 ounces of that 24 ounce water makes the cut, into the bloodstream, the rest goes straight to piss. This increases the over-all volume of her blood to 153 ounces. Now, lets say we chug two Dasani's. 156 ounces of blood, same amount of alcohol (actually, less with every exhale). You see where I'm going with this. If you get a breathalyzer, your BAC number will literally be lower with fluid intake than without.

It should be obvious that one cup of coffee or a sip from the tap isn't going to effectively negate a full night of keg-stands, but a 100lbs woman with 4 coors lights could actually hydrate her blood volume up to the number of ounces a slightly larger woman might have flowing through her. There's no real scientific dosage, but with fluids, you are, incrementally, making yourself more sober.

(It's science...)

Okay so that was a really long and important debunking of just one of The Washington Post's alcohol mis-steps. Lets move on to the next...

2) Beer then liquor, never sicker. Liquor then beer, never fear.

FALSE (they say): "There is no chemical interaction between these drinks that makes you feel particularly bad the next day."... They they go one to ponder: "Perhaps when you have already had several beers you'll drink more shots, and more quickly, as your self-control will be reduced."

Okay well I think we got to the bottom of that one rather quickly. A night of beers can easy-up the painful but fast intake of a shot of liquor, we agree the effect is entirely psychological. But that doesn't make it a myth. The psychological affects of booze are all well documented and so very non-mythical that alcohol continues to do well during a recession. And by the way, when you're trying to use CHEMISTRY to debunk thoroughly helpful folk wisdom, just remind yourself of my grand-dad's motto: if it rhymes, it probably wasn't discovered by doctors.

3) Absinthe is a hallucinogen. False (they say). "...[the active ingredient] thujone is not a hallucinogen, though it is toxic to nerve cells and causes seizures at high concentrations. "

Look, nobody claims that a shot of absinthe will get you a visit from J Edgar Hoover. The understanding about absinthe is that it will get you a different feeling of intoxication than regular liquor (red wine does as well).

HOWEVER...

Long term abuse can case brain-damage. And nothing gets you some hallucinations like brain-damage. So, in the big scheme of things, it can certainly lead to hallucinations. In the immediate sense, if a high enough dose can cause seizures, I'll bet that a few stops before seizure on the thujone train, you can get off at halluconationville, U.S.A., population: you.

(Technically, thujone is not a categorical hallucinogen, but I don't want Washington Post readers thinking that they can drink absinthe and be guaranteed a hallucination-free ride...)

4) Wine consumption explains the "French paradox." (which is the statistic saying: despite a diet high in sat-fat and cholesterol, the French suffer from a noteworthy lower heart-disease average.

False (they say). And they are actually correct here. The French don't consume any more wine than surrounding countries. Whatever causes it has nothing to do with lifestyle, because the statistic is national, not regional (i.e. skiing, something in the water, etc. would share a benefit with nearby city-states). Because it's national, it has to be something policy related. It's probably got to do with their national health-care. I don't know what, but the U.S. should probably jump on board that socialism train, and quick!

4) Beer drinkers will develop big bellies.

They say, "FALSE: The caloric content of a bottle of a beer can vary dramatically, from 95 calories to nearly 300. If anyone is going to notice the belt-busting effects of beer, it should be the Czechs, who consume more beer per person than drinkers in any other country [but studies show no no increased gut-size in the Czechs]."

To say that the calorie content of beer can vary dramatically does absolutely nothing to compare the calorie content of beer to any liquor or food. And if you want to talk about low-calorie beer, lets start with their main shebang, the pilsener, which is what Miller Light is modeled after. So, if Czechs don't have big beer bellies that means beer bellies don't exist? Try telling that to an Irish or Brit, who drink big dark ALEs and have skinny faces and legs trembling under the weight of their huge ale-paunches. If a Czech enjoys pilsener with 100 calories, and the Brit likes Boddington's Pub ale with 170, and both go out for 5 beers three times a week, the Czech will only be getting 1500 extra calories. The Brit gets 2550 extra. Over the course of a year, the Czech get 78,000 extra calories, the Brit gets 132,600 extra calories. Do you think one of these folks is going to have a bigger gut over the course of an adult life-span?

Let's say that the Post didn't mean to imply that they were comparing beer to hard-liquor (70 cal on average). Lets say they were just comparing beer calories to calories in food. Well, a Purdue University study has found that carbohydrates taken in liquid form are more likely to result in a positive energy balance (i.e. not burned off) than carbs taken in from solid food sources. And since soda isn't quite as life-style oriented as beer, the term "Soda Belly" never gained as much traction.

Does drinking beer get you a big belly? YES! How is this even up for debate?

5) There are plenty of ways to cure a hangover. The Post says False! They point to two articles (one of which needs a log-in to fully read) to establish that "No scientific evidence supports any cure or effective prevention for alcohol hangovers."

Look, this is very important, so I'm going to cut the double-talk and get straight to the point. Remember how I talked earlier about guzzling water as a way to incrementally make you more sober? Well a hangover (caused by a combination of dehydration, and residual toxins in the blood stream) CAN BE PREVENTED. BY DRINKING WATER. The link on the Post's website explores aspirin, banana's, even vegemite... but they never mention water (or any of their myriad items in combination with water).

Let me tell you something about science... it's not always sophisticated enough to accurately measure feelings. If you can hydrate your way to the feeling of not being hungover (and you can), then CONGRATULATIONS, YOU'RE NOT HUNGOVER! And I don't care what your lab readings say.

In a very literal sense, you can say that it's not a great cure to hydrate when you wake up hungover, because it takes a while to kick in during a time when every minute feels like Lord of the Rings. But if you guzzle some agua before bed, you WILL feel a lot better. Hell, I start in the afternoon before go-time, getting my blood volume nice and heavy for a long evening of consumption. It's important.

But let me re-iterate the causes of a hangover 1) dehydration (cured by water) 2) residual toxins in the bloodstream (carried promptly to the kidneys and out of the body by water). SO... The Cure is in the Prevention.

Most of you know this, I feel like an idiot even pointing this out, but some people take The Washington Post seriously, so I have to make it clear: DRINKING WATER BEFORE YOUR HANGOVER WILL SIGNIFICANTLY REDUCE YOUR HANGOVER.

I'm not really sure exactly what The Washington Post was trying to accomplish here... Even a far-reaching thinker like myself can't quite cook up a particular agenda for concocting a bias-neutral set of incorrect facts the way they did. My guess is that they're probably getting slammed for this by more important publications than mine, so I don't want to lay it on too thick. However, to the management at the Washington Post, I say you should probably have a guy like me on your staff to do the higher-echelon fact-checking on any future pseudo-mythbusting. I'm not being sarcastic. Please contact me if you'd like to discuss editorial positions.

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