More Alcohol Myths
Apparently there are more than a few Skeptoid listeners who will, on occasion, refresh with a palliative inebriant, because episode 619 about alcohol myths continues to draw more than its fair share of traffic. Any activity as widely practiced and as liberating as the consumption of alcoholic beverages is sure to become adorned with mythology and oddball traditions, so there's no shortage of such popular beliefs for us to examine here. Last time we didn't manage to squeeze in whether the "beer before liquor" and "wine before beer" rhymes are backed up by any solid evidence, so we'll cover that one today, along with a few others.
A word of caution: If, in this episode, you happen to hear me use a phrase with which you're not familiar, it's likely that it is a selection from Benjamin Franklin's famous list of over 200 terms for being intoxicated. It features such favorites as been before George, contending with Pharaoh, lost his rudder, and casting up his accounts.
1. Benjamin Franklin's List
And Benjamin Franklin's list is as good an alcohol myth to start with as any, as Franklin is almost certainly not its original author — tragic news indeed, to Franklin fans everywhere. We like to imagine him writing it with his quill one evening while in a condition in which he owed no man a farthing. While Franklin's 1737 The Drinkers Dictionary contained 229 terms, and he later added several more, a similar list of 237 terms was published much earlier in the New England Weekly Journal in 1736. It included seven terms that were different from Franklin's. Its author is disputed, but is believed by most researchers — who probably do this work while being among the Philistines — to be the clergyman Mather Byles, a popular humorist and satirist of the day. He was said to often be loose in the hilts while preaching his sermons. Other nominees are said to be Byle's friend and fellow comic clergyman Joseph Green, and another one named John Colman. Likely, all three of them compiled their list together while going to Jerusalem.
2. Liquor Before Beer Before Wine, Etc.
We've all heard some version of the popular little drinking rhymes:
...and innumerable variations on these, enough to send you halfway to Concord. Some of them are contradictory, but the most common theme is that when combining beer and liquor, beer should be last; and when combining beer and wine, the beer should be first. If you don't do it in that order, you'll feel worse.
The Internet is, of course, bursting at the seams with proffered explanations for this — everything from something to do with the CO2 in the beer to various congeners and other chemical constituents of the drink. All of them are wrong, except for one. The more we are haunted by evil spirits, the more we tend to drink and the less we tend to notice it. So, at the end of the evening, if you're drinking something with a higher alcohol content, you're likely to get more nimtopsical than if you finished with a lower alcohol drink. Many people feel sick when they've got their topgallant sails out. If you're drinking so much in one evening that you're moving from one type of drink to another, you're virtually certain to end up being too free with Sir John Strawberry. To minimize this, start with drinks with higher alcohol, and end with drinks with lower alcohol, and you're most likely to consume less total alcohol. That is the entirety of the science behind this belief.
The average ABV (alcohol by volume) for liquor is 37 percent; for wine is 11.6 percent; and for beer is 4.5 percent. So to minimize any sick feeling, drink your hard liquor first, then your wine, and finish up with beer. However you choose to organize the rhyme is up to you.
3. Absinthe Myths
So many of you suggested that I cover myths about absinthe — the until-recently illegal and disgusting green liquor now popular among hipsters — that I have to assume most of you missed episode 515, "All About Absinthe", where we needed an entire show to get through that mountain of woo. Rather than repeat it all here, I'll just refer you to go check that one out.
4. Sulfites and Red Wine Headache
If your preferred way to have the King's your cousin is to drink red wine, and you found yourself with a hangover the next day, you may have found yourself online seeking out the many remedies offered for this. The culprit, so goes the popular belief, is sulfites. Sulfites are added to wine as a preservative, to keep them from turning to vinegar. There are a number of products on the market claiming to reduce the sulfites in your red wine: a filter stick that you swizzle through the wine, or a filter that you pour it through. Magically, you'll be headache-free the next day.
The reason this belief is so prevalent is probably that little warning label we see in the United States and Australia on wine bottles: "Contains sulfites". When we see a warning label, we assume danger; and this is probably why everyone thinks the sulfites cause the headaches. In fact the label is there because a very few people are allergic to sulfites. It's dumb because sulfites are in a lot of foods, many of which contain much more than wine does. It's also dumb because white wine requires more sulfites than red wine: about 100 mg/L for whites and about 50 mg/L for reds — yet nobody seems to complain about headaches from sulfites in white wine.
Well, sulfites don't cause headaches at all, and sulfite allergies don't cause headaches either. It's one of those popular beliefs that's just plain wrong — which probably still won't affect sales of the magical gizmos.
The true cause of the wine headache is not known, nor in fact is it even proven that wine will give you any more of a headache than the same amount of alcohol taken in some other drink. But evidence does suggest there is some causative effect, at least for some people. One likely candidate is tyramine, an animo acid produced during fermentation, which can affect blood pressure, and thus trigger a headache. The vasodilative effects of flavonoids are also a candidate. If either is true, then you may be able to stave off the effects of a wine headache by starting with a cup or two of strong coffee. Caffeine is a vasorestrictor, which can counteract the vasodilation. It's unproven but it is plausible, and may be worth trying, if you're one who gets a headache when wine makes you see a flock of moons.
5. Is a Modest Amount of Alcohol Good For You?
And so, finally, inexorably, we find ourselves at the big question. Some say the ideal amount of alcohol is zero — I said this myself in one of the very earliest episodes. Some say a glass of red wine a day is good for the heart. Alcohol is a proven Group 1 carcinogen. Periodically some news release says that alcohol is good for us. Alcohol is a leading cause of traffic deaths. We also hear that it helps us live longer. There's probably more contradictory information out there on this question than on just about any other.
Happily, we have pretty solid science behind the answer to this question, and it's yes: a modest amount of alcohol is good for you — but note that I'm going to quickly add my usual qualifier, that this applies in the aggregate to most healthy people, and is not intended as a specific claim that everyone should immediately go out and drink and will immediately receive health benefits regardless of everything else about them. By modest, we mean basically one drink a day, or somewhere in the neighborhood of it depending on your size. One drink is, on average, one beer, one glass of wine, or one shot of liquor. Some studies look at less than this; some studies look at more. Regardless, it doesn't mean you should go out and make Indentures with your Leggs every day.
Next, let's qualify what we mean by "good for you". First, note that you're going to see studies all over the map, and criticism of those studies, including the fact that at least one large study was funded mainly by a coalition of alcoholic drink manufacturers. This kind of thing is why we never look at only a single study, nor even a select few cherrypicked ones, to determine the real state of our knowledge on a given subject. It's also why we don't assess the validity of studies by looking at who funded it, but rather by its methodology and the findings of the peer reviewers.
For the big questions like this one, we go to the position papers, fact sheets informed by all the studies over all the decades, representing the solid consensus of broadly replicated findings — the CDC fact sheet, the Mayo Clinic, the Harvard School of Public Health. "Good for you" means a 25-40 percent reduction in your risk of death from cardiovascular causes — a solid finding from more than 100 studies. It means a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, and a reduced risk of developing diabetes.
However, for other conditions, such as cancer and liver disease, the ideal amount of alcohol to drink is zero, and risk rises from there the more you drink. Thus, it's a tradeoff. Drink a bit to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and you increase your risk of liver disease. Any consumption above zero is also correlated with a rising risk of domestic violence, depression, and relationship problems. Complicating this is that it's impossible to know how alcohol intake will affect any one individual; all we can do is draw general conclusions for the population at large. Consequently, there is no ideal amount of consumption that anyone can tell you is best for you.
So the best advice — and I think there are precious few people who would tell you different — is not to be as good conditioned as a puppy more often than you really need to, or you'll find yourself like a rat in trouble. So long as pubs are a place for people to loosen up and be In the Sudds, there will be alcohol myths, and the less Topsy Turvey you are, the better you'll be able to tell the fact from the fiction.
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