Tuesday, December 13, 2011


New Year’s is around the corner and, when it comes to alcohol-related fatalities, it’s the most dangerous time of the year. Not only is there typically a spike in driver and passenger deaths starting at midnight on New Year’ Day due to excessive drinking, but even walking home while intoxicated that night can be dangerous. According to a study published in Injury Prevention, more pedestrians are killed by vehicles in the US on that day than on any other day of the year -- and more than half of them have high blood alcohol concentrations (BACs). Clearly there is much that people still need to learn.

I don’t think that very many people set out to get drunk and then drive or walk home -- but too many people think that they’re "fine" and "only a little buzzed" when their BAC is actually far beyond the US legal driving limit of 0.08. And it’s all too easy to overindulge when you’re counting down "10!... 9!... 8!..." with a crowd of friends.

How is it that we can be so smart yet make such wrongheaded assessments about our own level of drunkenness? We’re not all college kids, after all. Shouldn’t we be better at knowing our limits by now? To get some answers, I called Samir Zakhari, PhD, director of the division of metabolism and health effects at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who explained why it’s often easier than you realize to trick yourself.


  • We lose track. Yes, this sounds silly -- but there are several reasons why this can happen even to a usually cautious person. If you’re drinking something that you’re unfamiliar with -- a special concoction like a holiday punch, for example -- you may have no idea how much alcohol one serving contains, said Dr. Zakhari. Plus, those sweet, fruity mixtures (not to mention spiked eggnog!) can mask the taste of alcohol and make you think that there’s less in them than there is. In addition, some wines and beers are stronger than others (for instance, microbrewed beers usually have a higher alcohol content than common brands such as Budweiser), said Dr. Zakhari. Also, "generous" bartenders and "gracious" hosts may refill your glass far more often than you realize. All of this means that on party night you need to be extra alert when tracking your consumption and monitoring your head. While a buzz makes us feel "good," that same buzz impacts ability and judgment when driving or walking.
  • We chug too fast. Alcohol will affect your brain and other tissues until it has been fully metabolized by your body. Your liver can process only so much alcohol per hour -- in a healthy adult man, about one drink an hour (one drink being 12 ounces of beer or five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor), and in a healthy adult woman, less than one drink an hour. "When you drink more than that, your liver can’t keep up. The result is that the alcohol lingers longer in your bloodstream, where it can affect every organ and tissue and be more harmful to your health," he said. "And alcohol in the bloodstream is what impairs your judgment and makes you feel drunk." So sip your drinks slowly, and you’ll be more likely to stay sober. And if you’re lightweight or haven’t eaten much protein or fat shortly before drinking the alcohol, then the alcohol will get to your bloodstream even faster -- meaning your BAC will get higher, you’ll feel even more drunk and you’ll be even more impaired. So eat up before you grab a drink.
  • We choose riskier mixers. Bubbly drinks, like champagne or liquor mixed with sodas, hit harder, because carbonation makes alcohol get to your bloodstream faster, so you become more impaired when you drink those types of beverages. Alcohol mixed with energy drinks is also a recipe for disaster. Energy drinks often contain an enormous amount of caffeine, which can mask -- but not block -- the effect of alcohol. As a result you may feel alert, but in reality, your judgment is impaired and your reflexes are dulled.
  • We overpour. When you pour yourself a glass of wine, are you measuring out five ounces or are you filling the glass? Many glasses can easily hold two servings! And if you’re drinking pints of beer on tap, do you know that a pint is actually 1.3 drinks (compared with a 12-ounce bottle or can)? Many people don’t, which means that most people may be undercounting their consumption, said Dr. Zakhari.
Dr. Zakhari has a favorite saying that he believes sums up nicely what we need to know about drinking -- he calls it "the four Ds." "When people start drinking and they drink slowly, they are 'delightful.' When they continue drinking, they become 'devilish.' Then, if they keep going, they get 'delirious' and, sadly, sometimes that leads to 'dead.' So when you’re drinking this New Year’s, you need to know which 'D' to stop with!"


Samir Zakhari, PhD, director, division of metabolism and health effects, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.

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