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Feeling Festive – For Grownup Curiositeers Only!

As we enter the festive season, it’s clear we’ll be doing a lot of our socialising online this year. Zoom office parties might reduce the chances of high alcohol consumption which is quite a relief for me as I’ve been forced to recognise that age and alcohol equal substantial discomfort. From the dead-of-night heart palpitations to three-day hangovers, overindulgence for over 40’s is just no fun and I don’t even drink that much!

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to enjoy the odd glass of fizz (or 3) but clearly getting older and alcohol don’t mix. But why? As with most of life’s big questions, I turn to science for the answers that might prepare me for the inevitable or perhaps incentivise me to change my ways.

What makes bubbly boozy?

Alcohol obviously! Specifically ethanol, which is a chain of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms strung together like Christmas lights where the last bulb is a combination of one Oxygen and one Hydrogen atom.

The structure of ethanol makes it very easily absorbed through our gut. About 20% is absorbed through our stomach and 80% is absorbed via the rest of our gut, directly into the bloodstream. This means that within minutes of having a drink, the alcohol is speeding its way to every organ in the body.

Once in the bloodstream, alcohol goes to the liver which secretes a cunning enzyme that snips those Christmas lights at just the right positions to turn out every light in the chain. That enzyme is called Alcohol Dehydrogenase (dee-hi-drog-en-ase), and its job is to break down alcohol into manageable pieces that we can easily get rid of.

The Brain strain struggle is real

The problem with Alcohol Dehydrogenase is that we each have a limited supply and it easily becomes overworked. Once that supply is depleted, any remaining alcohol is free to run amok and cause havoc. It creates the most chaos in your brain, every part of it! How? Well, your brain functions are highly organised and finely balanced (a bit like Santa’s delivery system for all those Christmas presents 😃). That’s thanks to the neurotransmitters that make sure the right signal gets to the right place at the right time (just like Santa’s elves).

Alcohol basically disrupts all that organisation and balance, and to make matters worse, increases the power of a neurotransmitter called GABA which causes slurred speech and slower movements. If that’s not bad enough, it also acts on the pituitary gland in the brain, which controls the amount of water in your urine. For every unit of alcohol you ingest, your body forces your kidneys to get rid of a whopping 120ml of water. This causes serious dehydration.

 

Alcohol compensates for these rather alarming effects by increasing our dopamine levels giving us an artificial feel-good-factor (like when we fall in love), hence the merry feeling and potential lowering of inhibitions!

The painful truth

So there’s the sad scientific reality. Booze is bad news. But now I know, what’s going on, I feel way more determined to follow all the advice I’ve read about “sensible” alcohol consumption (and I’m sure you have too), because let’s face it, it’s the right thing to do. Here’s my plan:

  • A well-balanced meal with protein, carbs and fat to keep my gut busy and prevent that sudden shock of alcohol.
  • Taking it slow to give that supply of Alcohol Dehydrogenase a chance to break down more alcohol, leaving you feeling a little more festive in the morning.
  • Match alcohol with water – it won’t completely prevent dehydration but it will definitely help. This is the hardest one, especially if someone’s constantly topping your glass up. You could perhaps try keeping a bottle of sparkling water on hand and mixing white wine with that, for a more virtuous glass of bubbly, or making longer drinks that are big on mixers (there are tons of posh low sugar ones out there now!) and smaller on spirits.

In cheery conclusion… There’s no reason not to enjoy a festive tipple, just take it steady, and your tomorrow self will thank you for it!

And if you’re looking for some science fun for your own virtual office party, check out our Curiosity Boxes for grownups!

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