As we're ringing in the New Year, I daresay a few glasses of champagne or other spirits were probably enjoyed by many Huffington Post readers. So this seems like the perfect time to take a closer look at some of the popular lore about alcohol and nutrition.
How Is Alcohol Metabolized?
Some sources claim that alcohol is converted into sugar by the liver. This is not true. Alcohol is converted to a number of intermediate substances (none of which is sugar), until it is eventually broken down to carbon dioxide and water. Because too much alcohol is quite harmful to your cells, this detoxification process is a pretty high priority for your body. That means that if your liver is busy dealing with alcohol, it will delay dealing with other nutrients -- which is why drinking alcohol causes your blood sugar to go down and your blood fats to go up temporarily.
It's also often said that alcohol shuts down your body's fat burning engine. This is technically true but a little misleading. All it really means is that your body will use the by-products of alcohol metabolism as fuel preferentially. Over the long haul, however, this doesn't have much impact on the amount of fat you burn or store. As always, the amount of stored fat on your body is primarily determined by whether you're taking in more calories than you're using. The source of the calories is really secondary.
Should You Eat a Big Meal Before Drinking?
And speaking of calories, it's definitely a good idea to eat some before drinking. Unlike other nutrients, alcohol can be absorbed directly from your stomach into your bloodstream, where it travels to your brain. This effect is accelerated when you drink on an empty stomach. Having food in your stomach slows the speed at which alcohol enters your blood stream. A meal that includes some fat will work the best -- but, despite popular lore, you don't have to eat greasy, fried foods. Healthier sources of fat, such as some guacamole, vegetables sautéed in olive oil, or a nice piece of salmon will work just as well. However, eating a big meal will not necessarily spare you a hangover if you drink too much over the course of the evening.
Four Ways to Cure a Hangover
Obviously, the best way to avoid a hangover is to avoid overindulging. You might also want to choose your poison strategically. Even when the amount of alcohol consumed is the same, beer and clear liquors like vodka and gin may be less likely to cause a hangover than darker liquors like bourbon, whisky and brandy. But if you do wake up with a hangover, there are few things you can do to aid your recovery.
1. Rehydrate. Many hangover symptoms are due to dehydration. If you've had quite a bit to drink, try to drink several glasses of water before retiring. Keep a glass of water next to the bed and if you wake up in the middle of the night, have some more. Continue drinking water once you wake up. If plain water is making you queasy, Gatorade or another electrolyte replacement drink may be easier to handle.
2. Try aspirin and caffeine. The combination of aspirin and caffeine works better than either alone to relieve headaches and other hangover symptoms. You can simply take a couple of aspirin (or Alka-seltzer, if your stomach is upset) and have some coffee. Although the popular headache medication Excedrin contains both aspirin and caffeine, it also contains acetaminophen. The combination of alcohol and acetaminophen can be extremely toxic to the liver so you don't want to take Tylenol, Excedrin or any other drug containing acetaminophen if you've had more than a couple of drinks.
3. Have a light meal. Although it's true that alcohol metabolism depletes certain B vitamins, there's not a lot of evidence that taking B-vitamin supplements will help cure or prevent a hangover. What's worse, B-vitamin supplements often cause nausea, which is the last thing you need. But it couldn't hurt to sprinkle some nutritional yeast (which is naturally high in b-vitamins) on a piece of toast. Even better, stir it into some scrambled eggs. In addition to being easy to digest, eggs also contain cysteine, which may be helpful in relieving symptoms.
4. Take a walk. Gentle movement such as a brisk walk will help increase your oxygen levels and will speed the metabolism and clearance of alcohol and its metabolic by-products.
I'm sure you're aware that it is unsafe to drive if you've had more than one drink. But I was surprised to learn that having a hangover can also impair your reaction time and motor skills -- even after your blood alcohol is normal. So, it's probably best to avoid driving and operating machinery with a hangover.
The most important thing is to be safe and enjoy your New Year's Eve festivities responsibly. A good rule of thumb is to limit yourself to one alcoholic drink per hour, which is the maximum speed at which your liver can process or detoxify alcohol. And if you find yourself in the mood to make New Year's resolutions the next morning, here are my four secrets for making and keeping resolutions.
Follow Monica Reinagel, MS, LDN, CNS on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NutritionDiva