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Approach Alcohol Consumption with Caution During the Holidays: Your Health

By Rallie McAllister

As the holiday season approaches, many Americans will be celebrating with a glass of good cheer. While drinking a little alcohol can help you relax and enjoy the festivities, drinking a little too much can lead to embarrassing lapses in judgment, among other undesirable consequences.

If you don't want to end up wearing a lampshade at your first party of the season, it's a good idea to consume small quantities of alcohol with big doses of caution. This is especially true for folks who don't imbibe on a regular basis, since it's easy to underestimate the intoxicating effects of even a single alcoholic beverage.

If avoiding intoxication is your goal, limiting the amount of alcohol you drink is essential. It's also helpful to be aware of other factors that can hasten the loss of sobriety, including drinking alcohol on an empty stomach.

Following the consumption of wine, beer, or spirits, approximately 20 percent of alcohol is absorbed in the stomach, while the remaining 80 percent is absorbed in the small intestine. When it is consumed with food, alcohol spends more time in the stomach, and takes longer to enter the small intestine, and ultimately, the bloodstream.

A gradual release of alcohol into the bloodstream means that its initial effects are less pronounced. If you plan to drink and be merry, it's a good idea to eat a snack or a light meal while you're at it.

If you're watching your weight, skipping the snacks and mixing alcohol with a diet drink might save a few calories, but it could cost you in other ways. Compared to those that are sweetened with sugar, artificially sweetened mixers may accelerate the delivery of alcohol to the bloodstream.

The results of a small study conducted at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Adelaide, Australia, suggest that the artificial sweeteners in diet drinks may speed stomach emptying and lead to rapid elevations in blood alcohol levels.

In the study, researchers measured stomach-emptying times and blood alcohol levels in fasting male volunteers. The men consumed vodka mixed with orange juice on one day, and the same amount of vodka prepared mixed with a sugar-free, orange-flavored mixer on another day.

When the volunteers drank vodka mixed with orange juice, the average time required for half the stomach contents to empty was 36.3 minutes, but when they drank vodka with the sugar-free mixer, the average time was much faster, at 21.1 minutes. The volunteers' peak blood alcohol concentrations were also substantially higher following consumption of the artificially sweetened vodka beverage.

The results of this study suggest that when mixed drinks are consumed with artificially sweetened beverages instead of sugar-sweetened beverages, the intoxicating effects of alcohol are experienced more rapidly and more intensely.

Champagne is another alcoholic beverage that should be consumed with caution. While carbon dioxide gas creates the characteristic bubbles in champagne, it also appears to accelerate the body's absorption of alcohol, leading to more rapid and pronounced intoxication.

In a study conducted at the University of Epsom in the United Kingdom, researchers compared the effects of drinking fizzy champagne to those produced by drinking the same quantity of flat champagne in a small group of subjects. They found that within 20 minutes of consuming the beverages, the blood alcohol levels produced by the bubbly champagne were significantly higher than those produced by the flat champagne.

Certain medications can increase your sensitivity to alcohol, including over-the-counter antihistamines and prescription drugs used to treat anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Before you take a drink, be sure to read the labels to make sure it's safe.

Your gender, size, and body composition also influence your reaction to alcohol. In general, the smaller you are, and the more body fat you have, the more quickly you'll respond to the intoxicating effects of alcohol.

In most cases, women are more sensitive to alcohol than men, since they tend to weigh less and have a higher proportion of fat to lean muscle. Hormonal fluctuations can increase a woman's sensitivity at various stages of her menstrual cycle. Compared to men, women also have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of alcohol in the body.

Regardless of your size or gender, drinking too much of any type of alcoholic beverage can significantly impair your judgment, as well as your ability to drive. Before you toss back a drink to celebrate the holiday season, make sure you toss your car keys to a designated driver.

Rallie McAllister, M.D., M.P.H., is a family physician in Kingsport, Tenn., and author of "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her Web site is http://www.rallieonhealth.com.

Categories: Health & Wellness, Women's Health,

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