Headaches and hangovers

Headaches and hangovers are well known consequences of overindulgence in alcohol, but what is less well known is that these unpleasant side-effects are largely due to the impurities, the congeners, and not to the alcohol per se.

This interesting fact will be confirmed by many people who habitually drink gin or vodka rather than pot-distilled spirits such as rye, bourbon, scotch, rum or even wine and beer. More objective proof that the congeners and not the alcohol are the bad actors can be found in scientific literature. Numerous studies have been made and all investigators find the same thing, i.e. that the symptoms of hangover — headache, halitosis, gastric irritation, fatigue and dizziness — were far more severe when the same amount of alcohol was consumed in the form of whisky than in the form of vodka. When you think about it, this is hardly surprising considering the poisonous nature of some congeners.

As an example of such studies, in one clinical investigation 33 men and 35 women were each given 2 ounces of either whisky or vodka on separate occasions. The incidence of after-effects in the group following a single drink of 2 ounces of whisky was halitosis 27%, gastric irritation 25%, headache 9%, dizziness 7% and fatigue 6%. These symptoms persisted during the following day. After the same amount of vodka, temporary headache and gastric irritation were observed in only 2% of the subjects while there were no complaints of halitosis, dizziness or fatigue in any of the cases. It should be noted that all the subjects in this trial were light social drinkers.

The effects described were produced by a commercial whisky in which the congeners occurred to the extent of about 3%. As part of the study the congeners were separated from the whisky and given to the subjects in the absence of alcohol. The effect was the same as when the whisky itself was imbibed, proving that the congeners and not the alcohol were responsible for the adverse reactions. The chief culprit among the congeners was considered to be one of the fusel oils — amyl alcohol.

These results are not really definitive -- for one thing the size of the sample was too small -- but even without such a trial it is not difficult to believe that drinking such things as methanol and fusel oils, even in small amounts, will be bad for you. If it were a different poison, e.g. arsenic, it would not be surprising if a 3% solution in water gave you an upset tummy.

One of the conclusions to be drawn from such studies is that whisky production should be avoided by amateurs. Not only is it difficult to produce a blend of alcohol and congeners to give a palatable beverage but, additionally, the consequences of error could be unpleasant. Far more sensibly, remove all the impurities by fractional distillation to give a pure alcohol and then add a flavouring agent. Such a beverage may not be identical to commercial gin (actually all brands of gin have slightly different flavours) but it will be absolutely safe.

A final comment concerns the question of alcohol concentration in beverages. In beer the concentration is about 5%, in wine it is 8 to 13%, while in distilled spirits it is usually 40%. Only a moment's thought is required to appreciate that the concentration of alcohol in a drink is irrelevant; it is the amount consumed which is the determining factor in whether or not someone becomes inebriated. Drinking a bottle of 5% beer is not less harmful than a 1/-oz. drink of 40% scotch just because it is weaker. They both contain identical amounts of the same alcohol, i.e. 17 ml. Adding tonic water to a shot of gin dilutes it from 40% to maybe 6% but this has not rendered the gin less intoxicating --- the amount of alcohol has remained unchanged.

This is all so obvious that it may seem a little absurd to even mention it but, in most countries, the concept appears somewhat too difficult for the official mind to grasp. This is shown by the fact that governments put a much higher tax per unit of alcohol on distilled spirits than on beer and wine. The reason for doing this, it is claimed (somewhat piously), is to discourage people from drinking something which could be harmful to their health. A more likely reason is that it is seen as an opportunity to increase revenues.

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