The 13 Biggest Myths About Alcohol, Busted
Whether the goal is to prevent a hangover, limit calorie intake, or throw caution to the wind for an all-out rager, many drinkers follow a set of time-honored rules to get through a night or drinking with limited negative consequences. And while each may stem from a kernel of truth (or at least logic), they’re not exactly rules to live by.
1. The Myth: Mixing alcohol with energy drinks makes you drunker. It’s easy to interpret the combination of an alcohol-induced buzz and an energy rush from caffeine as a higher level of “drunk.” But energy drinks don’t actually enhance the relaxed and sociable feeling caused by a few drinks. Instead, caffeine masks the sedative effects of alcohol that often cue people to stop drinking (1). As a result, people are tricked into thinking they have more energy than they actually do, which can push them to continue drinking (and potentially lead to negative consequences such as getting too drunk or having a terrible hangover the next day) (2) (3).
The Fact: Energy drinks alter the perception of how intoxicated we really are, but have no direct effect on how those shots hit us. One exception? Mixing alcohol with diet soda may actually increase intoxication (but in this case it’s the lack of sugar, not the caffeine content, that has an effect). While for the most part drinking too much can’t be blamed solely on Red Bull, it’s best to steer clear of this combo to stay aware of your limits and to avoid any possible negative effects caused by drinking too much alcohol ortoo much caffeine (4) (5).
2. The Myth: Beer before liquor, never been sicker; liquor before beer, you’re in the clear. The reigning belief is that beer is a “softer” drink that can’t cause drunkenness as quickly as, say, shots of vodka. Switching to hard liquor after a few beers can make the feeling come on too fast… usually resulting in vomit (or so the myth goes). So, starting with the hard stuff and then slowing down with beer should prevent the spins, right? Not so much.
The Fact: The amount you drink matters more than the type of drinks you consume or how you mix them. Drinking too much of any alcohol too quickly can make you sick, whether it’s wine, beer, or liquor. No matter what you’re drinking, pacing is key.
3. The Myth: Darker alcohols are always healthier. Darker beers and wines generally have more antioxidants than light beer and white wine (the darker hues are thought to signify higher flavanoid content in beers and higher polyphenol content in wines). This means that most people conclude that, while these options are sometimes slightly higher in calories, they pack more nutritional value and are therefore inherently healthier than their paler friends.
The Fact: While darker alcohols may contain more antioxidants, they can also contain more cogeners—toxic chemicals created during the fermentation process—which can worsen hangovers (this goes for beer, wine, rum, whiskey, gold tequila, and pretty much any drink with a darkish hue). If you need to avoid feeling sluggish the next day, switch out some of those darker drinks for lighter versions.
4. The Myth: Older wine is better. The year on the label must mean something, right? Aged wine is perceived as more complex in flavor, more expensive, and of a higher quality. So it must be better to let any bottle sit around for a while before uncorking it.
The Fact: It depends on the type of wine. Some are meant to be consumed within one year of production and don’t get any better after time, while others are intended to be stored in a wine cellar for a few years to reach their peak quality. Unfortunately, a wine that sits past its intended expiration date does not get any more impressive with time. In fact, wine’s antioxidant content might actually decrease as it ages.
5. The Myth: Dark beer is higher in alcohol than light beer. Dark beers just look like they’re thicker, fuller in taste, and higher in carbs and calories. Many also assume blacker brews, like porters and ales, are higher in alcohol.
The Fact: While many “light” beers are in fact lighter in hue, color is not the sole indicator of a light-bodied, lower-calorie brew. Beer’s color depends on the type of grain it was made from. Some dark beers, like stout, are actually lower in both alcohol and calories than their paler cousins. To be certain about a beer’s true flavor and alcohol content, ask your bartender or beer distributor.
6. The Myth: Beer is a good workout recovery drink. Some research has suggested that beer can rehydrate athletes better than water for three key reasons: one, that beer’s vitamins and minerals offer health benefits that water doesn’t have; two, that the carbonation helps quench thirst; and, three, that the carbs help replenish energy stores.
The Fact:In that one study, researchers saw only a slight rehydration benefit over water in the athletes they tested. Sports drinks containing sugars, salt, and potassium can similarly rehydrate an exhausted body withoutthe negative side effects of alcohol. Plus, alcohol’s effect on the liver and pancreas causes oxygen to leave the bloodstream more quickly, which inhibits the transport of digestive enzymes and essential nutrients through the body. This slows muscle growth and repair and impairs the metabolism of carbs for energy (Not exactly what the body needs in the middle of a long run or lifting sesh…).
7. The Myth: Puking helps you sober up and prevents hangovers. Theoretically, tetting rid of alcohol that hasn’t yet been digested (read: vomiting) means it won’t be absorbed by the body and can’t contribute to tomorrow morning’s headache.
The Fact:Alcohol absorption into the bloodstream begins almost immediately, so getting rid of the likely small amount in vomit probably won’t make much of a difference—if you’re already at that point, there’s likely already too much alcohol in the body’s system to escape that hangover the next day.
8. The Myth: Taking Aspirin or ibuprofen before heavy drinking can reduce hangover effects. It’s a nice thought: Taking a pill now will help prevent feeling awful in the morning. But while those preemptive efforts to stave off a thudding headache may seem wise, ultimately they don’t pay off.
The Fact:Taking painkillers before pain sets in won’t help—the med’s power will wear off before that headache comes on. A word of caution: Absolutely do not take aspirin or ibuprofen while still drinking. The painkillers can erode the stomach lining, which, coupled with the stomach irritants in alcohol, can cause liver inflammation and allow more alcohol into the bloodstream, resulting in potential liver damage and a higher-than-normal Blood Alcohol Content (Talk about counterproductive!). Taking ibuprofen or another pain reliever the morning after, however, can help relieve temporary pains.
9. The Myth: Eating before bed will reduce hangover. Most of us have taken a drunken 3-am journey to the local pizza shop with a hankering for greasy, cheesy goodness. Comforting as it is, those slices will do very little to sober you up or reduce the severity of those hangover pains.
The Fact:By the time that pizza hits the stomach, the alcohol consumed has already been absorbed into your system. Greasy food won’t help your liver metabolize the alcohol any faster. In fact, the combination of alcohol and greasy food can actually contribute to acid reflux, meaning you’ll feel even worse in the morning. If you want food to help slow down alcohol absorption, consume a snack or a meal beforeyou start drinking (But don’t take this as free license to binge-drink.).
10. The Myth: Light beer is healthier. This is a tricky one. Some folks think of light beer as healthier because it tends to contain fewer calories and a slightly lower alcohol content. But those qualities don’t necessarily make it a healthier choice.
The Fact:Many people may end up drinking more to compensate for the lower alcohol levels, ultimately consuming more calories than if they’d stuck with full-strength brews (6). Also keep in mind that any one brand’s “light” beer is only light relative to that brand’s full-calorie counterpart (and calorie counts and alcohol content vary between brands). And besides, the number of calories in a product isn’t the sole determinent of how healthy it is. Instead of automatically opting for a light variety, look for a beer that’s healthier overall.
11. The Myth: Alcohol kills brain cells. This is an easy assumption to make if you’re observing the often less-than-wise behavior that can result from knocking back a few too many. But an average night of drinking won’t lead to any long-term brain damage.
The Fact:It may impair your thinking, but alcohol doesn’t permanently destroy brain cells. It damages dendrites, which are the little feelers on neurons that convey electrical messages from your brain to your body. Neuronsare the cells that act as communicators, triggering motor responses to physical stimuli. For example, if you touch something hot, neurons carry the message from your nerves to your brain, which send the return message to your arm to move your hand off the stove. Dendrite damage interferes with those messages, which can account for all those poorly spelled texts and inability to walk in a straight line (But the effects are not permanent.) That being said, it’s important to note that persistent alcohol abuse can indirectly contribute to lasting defects, since alcoholism is often accompanied by other poor health habits like poor nutrition. Overuse of alcohol combined with a lack of nutrients can lead to memory lapses and problems with motor coordination.
12. The Myth: Coffee and a cold shower will sober you up. Jolting and brisk: It’s easy to think that this combo will banish sleepiness and reduce the effects of alcohol, but the wake-up call treats only the symptoms—not the cause—of fatigue brought on by a late night of drinking.
The Fact:A human liver can process about one standard drink every hour (That’s 1.5 oz of hard liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer.) Coffee or a dunk in a brisk shower might wake you up a little, but it wont speed up the process of eliminating the bad stuff from your system. Time is (unfortunately) the only cure.
13. The Myth:Eating a big meal before drinking will help keep you sober. Yes and no. Eating before drinking can slow the absorption of alcohol by the body, but it can’t prevent you from getting drunk.
The Fact:The body begins absorbing alcohol through the stomach lining and small intestine, so if your tummy is full of food, it will take longer for the buzz to sink in. This may delay feeling drunk, but it won’t stop it completely. Eventually, the stomach will empty from dinner and alcohol absorption will pick up again. Drinking on an empty stomach is never a good idea, but eating beforehand isn’t a free pass to pound shots, either. As with so many things when it comes to health, moderation is key.
Originally posted December 2012, updated June 2014.
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- Mixing an Energy Drink with an Alcoholic Beverage Increases Motivation for More Alcohol in College Students. Marczinski CA, Fillmore MT, Henges AL, et al. Department of Psychological Science , Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, Kentucky. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2012 Jun 22.
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- The growing popularity of “low-carb” beers: good marketing or community health risk? Miller, P.G., McKenzie, S.P., de Groot, F.P., et al. The Medical Journal of Australia, 2010 Feb 15;192(4):235