I belonged to the street drinking party generation. Why deny it? When you look back and see friends coming and going, benches, parking lots, stairs, parks, beaches, bottles of cheap booze, bags of ice cubes and plastic cups; there you have the proof.
After the age of 30 street party drinking is frowned upon (now it´s more appropriate to have a Gin Tonic), although if you grew up in the days of the street party it´s quite normal to fancy drinking in the street again when you order a Gin Tonic (which for some strange reason has flambéed kiwi and spices added) and get ripped off for €12. This situation, based on real events, made me reflect and I decided to write an article about it. This is the result.
With this article I want to answer some of the questions about alcohol and the organism that have been accumulating over the years, such as: How does alcohol affect my brain? Why do we get a hangover? What makes hangovers so monstrous when you´re older? What is the best hangover survival kit? Why, after an epic booze-up on Martini, can´t I even smell it?
Hangover: A love story
Searching through scientific articles about the effects of alcohol on the organism, what you least expect to find is an exciting love story. But that´s what happened. Alcohol (Romeo) and glutamate receptors (Juliet) feel such a strong attraction on meeting that when they set eyes on each other, it´s love at first sight, and both merge forever in an eternal embrace. As a result, my glutamate receptors are disabled.
This is where the soap opera begins. When glutamate, which is engaged to the glutamate receptor, discovers infidelity it gets well and truly depressed. It turns out that glutamate is important because it´s responsible for exciting the connections between neurons (the well-known synapses), and since glutamate does nothing but cry and use up paper hankies, my brain doesn´t function so well. Like any young, passionate couple, glutamate receptors and alcohol have their favorite places. They like to proclaim their love for the hippocampus (memory), the amygdala (emotions) and the corpus striatum (movement and other necessities). This is what happens to me for drinking! Right? In part, yes, but it turns out that the same thing happens when I eat a good T-bone steak (due to animal fat) or half a dozen Cup Cakes (thanks to the sugar bomb).
Meanwhile, alcohol is taking over my body and affects it. My liver is one of the most damaged organs because it changes the way it works (well, its metabolism does), which translates into a shortage of blood sugar. Another interesting aspect (to feel like a truck had run over me) is that alcohol is diuretic and makes me spend the night going to the bathroom as if there was no tomorrow. The result: dehydration.
Finally, the love story has a tragic ending. The alcohol enters my brain and gives the neurons a good beating in the purest Bud Spencer style. Alcohol is neurotoxic and causes a good handful of my neurons to die.
In a healthy person, neurons only die from a sharp blow to the head or due to toxics. And here neither the kiwi, nor spices, nor Saint Pancras can do anything. Anyway (don´t worry Mom) about 700 neurons are born in my hippocampus every day (and also in other parts of the brain).
What does my body do with alcohol? Its strategy is to turn something toxic into something harmless. How? In the liver there are two enzymes responsible for converting alcohol (toxic as can be), into a harmless acetate. What happens is that when the concentration of alcohol is very high (as with whiskey or gin), our liver has more work than the lie-detector of “Salvame” and cannot cope. In this context, the child of alcohol and the glutamate receptors is born: the hangover.
Sleeping it off
The best way to eliminate toxins is sleeping because that´s when the cleaning lady comes. While the lymphatic system takes care of collecting cell waste in my organism, the size of the cells in my brain is reduced by 60% and a stream of cerebrospinal fluid is released to clear toxins (glymphatic system) and drags the filthy stuff to the liver where it finally passes away.
This is very logical. Imagine that the street sweepers come out to clean the streets with the hose at 9 in the morning. The city is awakening, the traffic is dense; it takes another hour to reach the place. Then they begin to soak young people going to school, or executives; they get complaints, and take two hours more to do their work. This is not efficient. And the body is obsessed with efficiency. In short, for my body, the night I decide to go to a street drinking party is like when a town is celebrating its patron saint´s festival, and the liver is the sucker that has to do a triple shift.
Hangover and age
At 18 our skin begins to conspire to weave the first wrinkles (regeneration cannot cope). From the age of 30 the tendency is to lose muscle and gain fat. We celebrate our 40th birthday by producing less saliva (our natural antibacterial toothpaste) and teeth are left in the raw, or at 65 the voice changes its tone because the soft tissue nuts in the larynx “loosen”. Let´s say, over time, things start changing in our bodies.
Even though we make more expensive or sophisticated concoctions, scientific studies show that with age we have more fat (and less liquid) so we are less hydrated and our liver gets lazier (in particular, the enzymes which are responsible for metabolizing ethanol are to blame). Let’s say that alcohol is more toxic because we eliminate it with more difficulty and our organs become more sensitive to toxicity, which means that after 30 the time necessary to recover from a hangover gets mercilessly longer (two days at the very least).
Hangover survival kit
Two things that will be very useful for your future night out. The first is to bear in mind the alcoholic drinks that cause the biggest hangover. From highest to lowest: cognac, red wine or calimocho, rum, whiskey, white wine, gin and tonic, vodka and beer. (Yes, I agree that rather than teaching us the names of volcanoes, they should have taught us this in school).
With this in mind, and once you´ve chosen your poison for the night, without further delay, I propose a hangover survival kit:
HANGOVER SURVIVAL KIT
- Before and after the party: a good shot of carbohydrates.
- Drink as much water as you can (preferably between drinks).
- Sleep as much as possible.
- Coffee is prohibited (it´s diuretic and although it keeps you awake, it would end up dehydrating you just like alcohol … bad).
- Eat fruit (pears, a little brown apple or orange).
- If like me, you are over 30, consider taking a tasty Ibuprofen before, or when, you get up.
- For that feeling of being tiny, or that the world is a pile of s** t … the best thing is to be pampered.
You can also just not drink alcohol if you don´t feel like it (seriously, you’ll have a good time anyway).
Why can´t I smell the Martini?
More than fifteen years ago I got completely drunk on Martini. Since then, just the smell of Martini and…. Uuuaaagh! How is it possible that smell can evoke that memory so intensely?
When I pour myself a Martini millions of molecules are detached and some of them reach my olfactory epithelium (in plain English, olfactory tissue). There are about 15-20 million neurons bathed in mucus that are connected to the olfactory bulb (like the shop window display of a perfumery). The interesting thing is that thousandths of a second later, on its way through the brain, the information about smell relative to the Martini, passes through the areas that are responsible for my emotions and feelings (insular cortex and amygdala), which makes what I smell become emotional and sentimental.
Smells are not something physical from the food but a mental experience. The same thing happens with all the senses and also with memory. This point is the key to understanding how a smell can generate a stigma in my memory, and as soon as my olfactory epithelium meets Martini molecules, my brain makes me feel so goddamn sick.
Thank God we are genetically programmed to have behavior like this, so the stupidity that led me to drink 6 glasses of Martini more than fifteen years ago, and go through that epic hangover, will not be repeated again (at least not with Martini). Cheers!
- Bueno, D., Cerebroflexia: El arte de construir el cerebro. 2016, Barcelona, España: Plataforma editorial.
- Meier, P. and H.K. Seitz, Age, alcohol metabolism and liver disease. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2008. 11(1): p. 21-26.
- Estupinyà, P., El ladrón de cerebros: Compartiendo el conocimiento científico de las mentes más brillantes. 2010, Barcelona, España: Debate.
Translated by PHILIP BARNES.