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learn something new: the science of boozing


For issue 82 of frankie, we investigated the effects of downing a tipple or two.

boozing 1

As any barfly will tell you, humans have a complex relationship with alcohol – but what they may not tell you (either because they don’t know or they’re too busy wailing misremembered Red Hot Chili Peppers lyrics at the general public) is that we’ve actually been getting pissed since before we were even human. Our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, were getting wasted on the yeast in over-ripe fruit some 10 million years ago, and in doing so, loading up on lots of extra calories. This gave the tree-dwelling creatures a distinct advantage when it came to nabbing food in the forest – few other animals can tolerate alcohol.

Not only can we tolerate it, but our form of ADH4 – aka the enzyme in our system that prevents alcohol from entering the bloodstream – is 40-fold more effective than the ADH4 found in other primates. This means we can drink all other species – even those similar to our own – under the table. There’s one problem with ADH4, though: it (along with its other enzyme buddies) digests alcohol by converting it into acetaldehyde, a Grade 1 carcinogen responsible for that jack-hammering sensation in the side of your skull and the sweaty ham-like complexion you wake up with after a night out on the grog. In other words, you get a hangover.

So, why do we love getting off our tits so much, given how violently sick we can (and frequently do) feel afterwards? Well, before you’ve reached the point of shovelling fries down your face, then throwing them up in the same poetic gesture, alcohol will have sprayed your stressed-out brain with dopamine – and since dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in controlling rewards and pleasure, a pint or two can make you feel pretty ace. You also socialise better. A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh comparing groups of drinkers and non-drinkers found that the drinkers were more likely to talk, smile contagiously and involve everyone in the conversation.

But just because you’ve downed a Jägerbomb, doesn’t mean you’re the life of the party and/or a sex god – as much as the ethanol may be distinctly telling you you are. In a 2013 study, researchers discovered that nearly everybody reckons they’re more attractive after they’ve had a drink (this was also true when participants had only been plied with a placebo). What’s more, boozed-up individuals will consistently rate their speech-giving abilities more positively than when they’re sober – even if they categorically suck (independent judges confirmed they did).

You’ll also need to go wee-wees more frequently than usual. That’s because plonk messes with your brain’s production of antidiuretic hormone, or ADH. This hormone has one job: to keep water in the body. But booze blocks the nerve channels that secrete ADH, and without it your kidneys become lame at reabsorbing water – thus, fluids pass through you like water through a tap. There is no ‘seal’ to break, however; this is bogus drinkers’ lore. What gives you the impression that you’ve ‘broken your seal’ is that it takes a little while for the cider in your system to get around to suppressing the ADH – but once it has, you can expect to be visiting your porcelain friend (or popping a squat at the nearest dumpster) roughly every 15 minutes.

On the upside, a small amount of hooch could improve your ability to speak a foreign language. Dutch researchers found that folks attempting to master the local lingo had better pronunciation when they were very slightly sozzled. That said, if you choose to make alcohol a regular part of your diet, do so in the knowledge that consuming between 14 to 21 units per week has been associated with an increased risk of developing hippocampal atrophy – a form of brain damage associated with memory loss and disorientation. So go slowly into that good night.

This story first appeared in the pages of frankie issue 82, on sale now. Nab a copy from our online store.

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