Dispelling common myths about alcohol
Published on 21 December 2023
The festive season is upon us, ushering in a joyous time for celebrations with your friends, family, and loved ones.
But amid the laughter, feasting, and clinking of glasses, it is important to adopt a responsible approach to your health and well-being during this period, particularly when it comes to enjoying your favourite alcoholic beverages.
After all, while you may enjoy the heady buzz that alcohol brings, there are potential risks associated with consuming it in large quantities within a short timeframe.
Dr Phua Yiyong, Family Physician at the National University Polyclinics (NUP), said, “Drinking alcohol can lead to increased urination and fluid loss, making you more susceptible to dehydration, fatigue, and headaches.”
There is also the risk of alcohol poisoning — a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when high levels of alcohol overwhelm the body, leading to suppressed vital functions such as breathing, heart rate and body temperature. Bingeing on alcohol can also contribute to long-term health issues such as liver damage.
“The recommendation for males is two standard drinks, and one for females, per day,” Dr Phua said. “A standard drink equates to one can of beer (5 per cent alcohol content), a 175ml glass of wine, or a 35ml shot of spirits, such as vodka.”
While the breath alcohol content limit in Singapore is 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100ml of breath, it is important to note that even small amounts of alcohol can still impair judgment and reaction time. How much you can drink and stay within the legal limit depends on factors such as your weight, age, gender and metabolism; what you’ve eaten that day; your stress levels and the type of alcohol you’ve consumed. That being said, it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid driving after drinking.
Finally, as alcohol can have dangerous interactions with certain drugs such as benzodiazepines and antidepressants, it is advisable to consult your physician on what medication is safe to take when consuming alcohol.
Ultimately, the key to enjoying alcohol responsibly is moderation.
Hangovers – distinguishing fact from myth
A frequently encountered side-effect of alcohol consumption is the unpleasant experience of hangovers.
“A hangover is a set of symptoms that occur as a result of drinking too much,” Dr Phua explained. “Typical symptoms include fatigue, thirst, headache, nausea, stomach pain, irritability, sensitivity to light and sounds. The symptoms vary between individuals.”
Is there a sure-fire way to avoid hangovers? What is the best way to reduce its severity after a night of drinking? Is a hangover pill effective?
We ask Dr Phua to confirm or debunk the following common beliefs about alcohol consumption and hangovers.
Alcohol helps you fall asleep. TRUE…But…
While alcohol can cause you to fall asleep faster, sleep is fragmented, resulting in fatigue the following day. Alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, a toxic by-product that causes inflammation in the liver, pancreas, brain and stomach.
Some alcoholic drinks also contain compounds that worsen hangover symptoms. For instance, wine contains sulphite, which contributes to dehydration and intensifies fatigue and thirst. Dark spirits such as whisky and rum contain congeners (natural by-products formed during the alcohol fermentation and aging process) that are known to increase inflammation, headaches and nausea.
Hangover pills and other cures can prevent or cure a hangover. FALSE
You may have seen products in the market touting benefits such as the ability to stave off hangovers. Or you may have heard of homespun remedies such as taking a shower, drinking coffee or popping herbal supplements. According to Dr Phua, “the only scientifically proven cure for a hangover is time, as you must wait for the body to finish clearing the toxic by-product of alcohol metabolism, to rehydrate and to heal irritated tissues, as well as to resume normal brain activity.”
The order in which you consume alcoholic beverages affects the severity of a hangover. FALSE
Perhaps you’ve heard of the phrase “beer before liquor, never sicker”, or have friends who swear by the purported benefits of drinking beverages that are lower in alcohol content first before moving on to the heavier ones. They may believe that this can lessen the severity of your hangover the next day.
There’s no science behind this. Basically, the more alcohol you drink, the worse the hangover will be. This is true regardless of whether you drink beer, wine, distilled spirits, or a combination of these tipples.
Taking painkillers can help to prevent hangover-induced headaches. SOMEWHAT TRUE.
With headaches being a common symptom of a hangover, people may resort to taking painkillers to prevent them. However, it is important to note that painkillers such as paracetamol can contribute to liver injury, while stronger painkillers such as those classified as Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can cause irritation to the stomach.
Combining alcohol with painkillers can intensify the sedative effects of alcohol, leading to dangerous outcomes such as extreme drowsiness, dizziness and impaired coordination. This combination increases the risk of overdose and may harm the liver. You may want to take painkillers the morning after a night of heavy drinking, but do make sure you stay within the recommended dosage limits and consult a healthcare professional if you have concerns.
Eating fried food helps to soak up the alcohol and alleviate a hangover. FALSE.
Indulging in fatty foods such as burgers and pizza may delay the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, but it should ideally be done before consuming alcohol. However, when nursing a hangover, eating greasy foods may disrupt your digestive system. Instead, consider food rich in complex carbohydrates to provide satiety, essential nutrients for nourishment, and electrolytes to aid in rehydration.
In consultation with Dr Phua Yiyong, Family Physician, NUP.