We've all been there: A friend, neighbor or colleague has one drink too many at a party and slides from tipsy into sloppy before your eyes. Or maybe you were the one who kept the gossips in business the next morning.
Staying on the right side of the bubbly, beer or cocktails during the stressful holiday season isn't as easy as munching a few hors d'oeuvres at the top of an evening.
But it's doable with a little finesse - by the drinker and the host alike.
Understanding how the body processes alcohol is a good place to start. Ignoring wives' tales - like coating your stomach with milk before drinking or thinking you can sober up with coffee - is another.
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DO THE MATH
Alcohol absorption and metabolism vary from person to person. Variables such as food in the stomach, body composition, body size, gender and medications are all important in how a person responds to alcohol.
Consider this example: A 1-ounce shot of 80-proof distilled spirits (bourbon, rum, gin, vodka, whiskey and many liqueurs) will produce in the average 150-pound man a blood alcohol concentration of about .02 percent. In a smaller drinker, say 120 pounds, the same amount would likely produce an alcohol concentration at or near .03 percent. For comparison's sake, the limit for drivers to be considered legally drunk in all 50 states is .08.
The liver can metabolize only a certain amount of alcohol per hour, allowing it to accumulate in the bloodstream when consumed quickly, so having only one drink per hour could help you keep pace. In these supersize-me times, a drinker must also be aware of how much alcohol is in each glass because a well-meaning host or bartender may be pouring extra-large drinks without actually measuring.
A regular-size drink usually refers to one 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. The body would need two to three hours to break down those amounts, says Kim Galeaz, a registered dietitian and consultant to the food and beverage industry.
"When there isn't any food in the stomach to slow down absorption, the absorption process can happen very fast - in about 20 minutes," she says.
Recent studies have cast doubt on certain foods having more impact than others on slowing alcohol absorption, says Carlton K. Erickson, director of the Addiction Science Research Education Center and a professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas at Austin.
"As long as you're eating and drinking at the same time, that's the important thing," he says.
Without food in the stomach to slow absorption, alcohol travels quickly through the small intestine and into the bloodstream. With food, the process is slowed: "It's not the food absorbing the alcohol. It's the slowness of the stomach emptying."
Party hosts looking to avoid drunken guests should circulate more than just a few nibbles throughout the evening rather than relegating food to remote tables or running out of food early as alcohol continues to flow.
Food s no magic bullet: A drinker with a full stomach might consume too much alcohol in a short period believing it isn't having an effect, only to learn otherwise once the food passes through the intestine and the alcohol remains in the bloodstream. Food delays absorption of alcohol, but it doesn't neutralize it, Galeaz and Erickson warn.
THEN EASE UP
Tim Laird, chief entertaining officer for Brown-Forman Corp., which produces Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve, among several other wines and spirits suggests a signature drink with a similar, alcohol-free sister served in the same glasses with identical garnishes so guests can feel a part of things without pressure.
"As Champagne is a popular drink for the holidays, I set out a sparkling station that has numerous fruit juices where guests can mix their own sparklers," he said. "I have club and lemon lime soda also available. Alcohol-free mixers help dilute the drinks as well."
Cutting back on alcohol service toward the end of an event while continuing to offer alcohol-free beverages is another trick of his trade.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
Research indicates that a single alcoholic drink might affect the average woman more than the average man.
That's partly because women tend to have less of the alcohol metabolizing enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) in the stomach, causing a larger amount of ingested alcohol to reach the upper intestine and thus the blood, Erickson says.
A drinker's overall weight is also key to avoiding over-consumption of alcohol. A large person will not be affected as much as a small person by the same amount of alcohol because the alcohol is distributed through more mass. Again, a good general rule of thumb: The less you weigh, the more likely you are to be affected by the same amount of alcohol.
The holidays can bring on bouts of depression and social anxiety in people who might find themselves relying too much on booze to schmooze. Thinking about the emotional underpinnings of overindulging is a good place to start, says Georgia Foster, a clinical hypnotherapist in London and creator of a book-CD prevention combination called "The Drink Less Mind."
"Christmas and New Year are challenging and the stresses and strains can lead to drinking for more than just fun," she says. "We live in a drinking society, and I believe there is nothing wrong with that. I think drinking is something to really enjoy rather than gulp. To savor a delicious glass of wine is wonderful" so long as alcohol doesn't become a "stress management pill."
TRY THESE TRICKS
- Monitor your motor skills as an indicator of intoxication by moving around at a party or in a bar rather than sitting in one place. Parties can be difficult for many people, but falling down at one probably won't make things easier.
- Try putting a drink down on a table or bar between sips to slow down consumption to no more than one or two drinks per hour. If you're a fast drinker, try beer over wine or spirits. More than five drinks of any alcoholic beverage in an evening is probably too many. Keep count.
- Avoid drinking alcohol as a thirst quencher. It's not a good one. Intersperse alcoholic drinks with glasses of water to stay hydrated and satisfy thirst, especially when consuming salty or dry foods.
- Knocking back a stiff drink to stay warm while caroling or during other winter activities is a misconception, Galeaz says. Alcohol tends to increase your body's heat loss, making you more susceptible to cold.