Am I Drunk, Hungry, Or Both? Alcohol As An Appetite Stimulant (Skeptical Inquirer)

8 minute read

If you’ve never gotten fast food after leaving a bar late at night (or, more correctly, early in the morning) I’d highly recommend it. I’ve never been sure if it’s the intoxication, the tiredness, or the unusual hour that makes post-pub falafel taste like heaven, but somehow after I go out drinking with my lab mates the food always just is better. I had resigned myself to the mysterious joy of 2 a.m. poutine remaining just that, a mystery. But last Christmas my grandfather took me by the shoulders and with odd earnest asked me to write an article finding out if alcohol is an appetite stimulant. Well, Grandpa, it may have taken seven months, but here it is! Let’s take a look at the evidence for alcohol as an appetite stimulant.

Read the entire article here: https://skepticalinquirer.org/exclusive/am-i-drunk-hungry-or-both-alcohol-as-an-appetite-stimulant/

The Truth Behind “Beer Before Liquor”

2 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-health/beer-liquor

Have you ever heard the saying “beer before liquor never been sicker”? Or “liquor before beer, you’re in the clear”? What about “grape or grain but never the twain”? Well, it turns out that there might be some truth to at least some of these adages.

There are a few factors to consider here.

First, there’s the absolute volume of alcohol you are consuming. Looking at the Manhattan as our example cocktail, it contains roughly 28% alcohol by volume (ABV), which makes it seem much less potent than, say, straight whiskey, with its ABV of 40%. But it’s not really fair to compare these drinks on their ABVs since the amounts consumed tend to be different.

What matters isn’t the ABV of a drink, but the true amount of pure alcohol (ethanol) in a drink. In the chart below you can see a comparison of drinks’ ABVs, volumes, and actual amounts of ethanol.

DrinkABV (%)Volume of
1 Drink
(mL)
Absolute Amount of
Alcohol in 1 Drink (oz)
Beer63550.72
Wine121500.6
Manhattan281401.31
Bloody Mary122200.9
Straight vodka40450.6

So you can see that, even though we tend to consider one glass of wine, cocktail, or can of beer equal to “one drink”, the actual amount of alcohol you’re consuming can vary wildly by what kind of drink you are having.

The volume difference in drinks also influences how quickly we drink them. A beer tends to take longer to drink than a cocktail, or especially a shot, simply because it’s much larger. Purely based on volume, you could drink 2.5 Manhattans in the time it takes to drink one bottle of beer. So, by drinking beer, you essentially give yourself a lower alcohol per minute rate of consumption than when drinking cocktails.

If your options are only to drink cocktails and then beer, or beer and then cocktails, it makes sense to keep your heavier drinking for the beginning of your night. When you’re more sober you’ll be better able to pace yourself, evaluate how you’re feeling, and make changes to your rate of consumption if need be. Later in the evening, when your decision-making process is already compromised, beer is a safer option that won’t contribute as much to making you more intoxicated.

There is however another factor at play here: how well your body absorbs alcohol in different preparations. A 2007 study found that the vodka served diluted (with carbonated or still water) was absorbed faster than the vodka served neat. This means that even if the same amount of time is taken to drink straight liquor or a glass of wine (two drinks which contain about the same absolute amount of alcohol) the wine still may leave you more intoxicated, as it is better absorbed into your blood.

As for the grape or grain advice? Feel free to ignore it. A 2019 study compared the hangover severities of subjects who drank only beer, only wine, beer and then wine, or wine and then beer, and found that “neither type nor order of consumed alcoholic beverages significantly affected hangover intensity.”

Testing Drivers for THC Is a Lot Harder Than Testing Them for Alcohol

3 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/health/testing-drivers-thc-lot-hard-testing-them-alcohol

To test drivers for alcohol consumption, we have the breathalyzer. It’s fast, reliable, portable and inexpensive, but it will not work for cannabis.

We’ve been testing for THC (the main psychoactive part of cannabis) for a very long time. Our problem is not detecting it, but doing so with a portable machine in a non-invasive way.

As far as existing tests go, urine tests are commonly used for athletes or other employees undergoing drug tests. THC can be detected for anywhere from 1-30 days after use, depending on the frequency of use and the body fat of the individual (since THC is fat soluble).

False positives can result from consuming a variety of things: hemp seeds, ibuprofen, naproxen, and even Prevacid (an antacid). Luckily, a blood test can differentiate between true and false positives. Unluckily, blood tests for casual users of cannabis are only effective at detecting THC for about 1 day after consumption.

An alternative is a hair test. For that, the top 1.5 inches of a strand of head hair is tested. Body hair can also be used, though finding a 1.5-inch piece of leg or arm hair may be difficult. THC can be detected in hair up to 90 days post-consumption, although hair treatments like perms or dyes can affect results. This method is very sensitive and does not create false positives, though it does take longer than a urine test.

The quick and portable test that the Canadian government has settled on using is saliva-based. It’s called the Dräger DrugTest 5000. It requires only 0.28 mL of saliva, produces results in minutes, and even though very little THC passes from the blood into the saliva, the limit of detecting is low enough to still detect the compound.

The DrugTest 5000 is used in Australia, Germany and the UK. But it alone will not be the sole method of measuring intoxication of drivers. In addition to measuring the THC in a driver’s saliva, police will be allowed to perform field sobriety tests, and watch for telltale signs that someone is intoxicated.

Besides cannabis, the DrugTest 5000can detect opiates, benzodiazepines, cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines, though it does so for a hefty price: about $6000 per unit. It is only usable when the temperature falls between 4 and 40 ˚C, and can show false results if the subject has recently eaten or smoked.

This study took blood and saliva samples from 369 drivers and tested them using the DrugTest 5000 and traditional blood test methods (UHPLC-MS-MS). The DrugTest 5000 was correct in its assessment about 85% of the time for THC. This means that a false positive or negative reading would be given roughly once in every eight tests. Not really the best numbers.

The rate of false negatives is much better for the DrugTest 5000 when detecting methamphetamine (6.1%), opiates (0%) or cocaine (0%), although the rates of false positives (38.4%, 65.5% and 87.1%) are still quite high. False positives would at least be revealed as falsepositives upon blood test, a better alternative to letting an intoxicated driver free on the roads, but a 1 in 8 chance of a false reading is not what I’d hope for from the technology used by the Canadian police.

Before the Breathalyzer There Was the Drunkometer

Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-history/breathalyzer-there-was-drunkometer

The idea of a mechanism to measure the alcohol a person has consumed dates back quite far. A 1927 issue of Popular Science speaks of a device to ‘test a Tippler’s breath’, suggesting that housewives use W.D McNally’s new invention to see if their ‘errant’ husbands had been out drinking. The device is said to use chemicals that change colour, but what chemicals they were is unknown. This is howeverthe same mechanism behind the first portable breathalyzer just years later.

The first stable breathalyzer for out-of-lab use was developed by Rolla N. Harger in 1931 and named, hilariously, the drunkometer. This early breathalyzer functioned very differently from modern ones: it relied on a colour change due to a reaction between alcohol in the breath and acidified potassium permanganate. Lacking a quantitative scale it simply relied on the idea that more purple colour equaledmore alcohol.

The first breathalyzer as we currently know it was developed by Robert Frank Borkenstein in 1958. Borkenstein coupled a photometer with a reaction between the alcohol in a subject’s breath and potassium dichromate. 

This method allowed quantitative measurements of blood alcohol content, and let us move away from simply declaring people “50% drunk.”

His breathalyzer was a tremendous leap forward for law enforcement and road safety, as it gave police a non-invasive, quantitative and rapid method to confirm that somebody was too drunk to drive. 

Since Borkenstein’s breathalyzer, the technology hasn’t changed that much (read about it here). Except that breathalyzers are now less than $20 and small enough to fit on keychains.

Science Says Scotch Tastes Better Watered Down

Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/science-says-scotch-rocks-tastes-better-straight

Everyone knows that oil floats on water. That’s because oil is nonpolar, and water is polar. These terms describe the arrangement of charges in their structure: nonpolar means a molecule has no net charge, polar means it does. The polarity of a molecule influences the way it interacts with other molecules.  We tend to think of two ‘like’ substances, be they nonpolar like two different oils, or polar like water and vinegar, as mixing completely, but that’s not entirely true in all cases.

When water and ethanol mix, they do so partially, dispersing in a way that depends on their concentration. Add some small molecules into the mix, and where we’d normally expect them to diffuse evenly throughout the solution (like tea diffuses out of a tea bag when brewing) we get instead certain clusters of the molecule. 

Most flavour molecules are small and hydrophobic,and prefer to hang out with ethanol rather than water,since its bigger surface allows more interaction. 

Since water and ethanol are not uniformly distributed throughout the glass, this leads to hot spots of flavour and aroma. Studies have found that ethanol and its associated flavour molecules are found evenly distributed when the concentration of your beverage is above 59%.

But at concentrations lower than 45% (like the 40% of most commercial whiskeys) ethanol is preferentially found at the liquid-air interface, or the top of your cup. Flavour molecules found here are more easily inhaled and immediately tasted upon sipping, leading to an overall better whiskey experience!

This effect is heightened if the whiskey is further diluted with water (down to about 27% in most cases). The flavour molecules are found even more preferentially at the liquid-air interface,and become more likely to evaporate and contribute to that pleasant smokey smell you love.

With this in mind, I think I’ll pass along some science next time someone gives me a judgemental look for ordering a scotch on the rocks. Though, since coldness can decrease taste, we really should be adding room temperature water. Maybe I can get used to that.

Cheers! To the science of sipping!

From Bottle to Blood to Breath: How Breathalyzers Work

Originally posted: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/did-you-know-breathalyzers-dont-directly-measure-your-blood-alcohol-concentration

The term “alcohol” to a chemist  means an organic compound that contains an OH group, but as far as the public is concerned “alcohol” refers to one specific compound, namely, ethanol. It is ethanol that we consume in wine or beer, and when we measure blood alcohol content (BAC), we’re really measuring blood ethanol content.

Breath analyzers (Breathalyzer is a brand name) contain an anode (negatively charged electrode) and a cathode (positively charged electrode). When you blow into a breathalyzer, the ethanol in your breath reacts with water from the air at the anode and is oxidized to form acetic acid (like in vinegar).

Meanwhile, at the cathode, oxygen from the atmosphere is reduced to form water. These two coupled reactions produce an electrical current between the electrodes that’s proportional to the amount of ethanol present in your breath. So, breathalyzers don’t truly measure blood alcohol content (which can only be done with a blood test) but estimate it based on the ethanol in your breath.

There are a few situations in which a breathalyzer may fail to measure BAC accurately. Notably, individuals with higher-than-normal levels of acetone in their breath may have it detected as ethanol. This could include diabetics, those on fasting diets, or those adhering to a ketogenic diet. There are a few other substances that could interfere with the chemistry of a breathalyzer, but not ones that you’re too likely to have in your bloodstream, thankfully.

Beer Can Survive a Nuclear Fallout

Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/beer-can-survive-nuclear-fallout

In 1957 the U.S. government conducted a study aptly named “The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages”. The researchers placed cans and bottles of beer and other drinks in various proximities to a nuclear explosion, some above ground, some sheltered, and left them to experience the nightmare of a nuclear explosion.

Did the Fallout series get it right when they populated the post-apocalyptic wasteland with beer and cola bottles? Yes! Naturally, some beverages were hit by debris and broke, but any that remained physically intact werefound to be safe to drink. And drink them they did, declaring that the beverages closest to the blast tasted “definitely off”, but ones from a bit further away were still of “commercial quality”.

Could beer actually help us survive the apocalypse? There have been some claims that ethanol can act as a scavenger molecule, reacting with the dangerous free radicals produced by ionizing radiationand stopping their ill effects. That would help certainly explain all the drinking in Battlestar Galactica.

Sadly, while ethanol does show some scavenging activity, it’s fairly weak compared with some of the other bioactive scavengers we know about, like naringenin (found in grapefruits) and tocopherols (found in vegetable oils). Not to mention that the levels of radiation you’re likely to experience when traversing the wasteland of Canada are going to be a bit high for scavenging molecules to really help.

So, if the bombs do fall, remember that six-pack you have in the garage because, while it might not stop radiation, it might make the apocalypse a bit more bearable.