The poison of course, is in the dose.

Holiday drinking, what’s your game plan?

“winter cocktail” by InterContinentalKiev is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Whilst it must be acknowledged that drinking alcohol to excess, repeatedly, is dangerous and a significant societal problem, it is still part of most people’s lives. Given that we use alcohol when we meet with friends, relax, celebrate and  commiserate, it’s worth spending a small amount of time thinking about how we relate to it personally and perhaps building a simple framework to work with it.

The older I get the more I realise that setting an intention with some decisions premade is the best way to at least TRY and meet a goal.  Just like having a plan B for awful weather that you know might upset your running schedule, it means we don’t have to make decisions in the moment. Decisions in the moment usually involve taking the path of least resistance.

I don’t hate drinking!

It really is a social lubricant. I enjoy the confidence a drink can give. allowing a slight relaxing of our inhibitions, I love constructing cocktails and sharing them. I went to medical school, madly – we did a lot of drinking – I  can’t sit here and write this with a holier than thou attitude.  I am writing this because if a game plan is super helpful for ME, it may be helpful for others.

How many times have you left the house thinking “I’m not going to drink too much tonight” and somehow fallen out of a taxi in front of your house at 3am.  You wake up super early, boiling hot, a mouth that tastes like you’ve chewed a skunk’s sandal and then, that pervasive crescendoing headache as you try and lift your head off the pillow. Sometimes you wake up feeling okay, don’t be fooled, the tidal wave of nausea rears its head two hours later and back to bed you go.

 Let’s not talk of the paralyzing anxiety, flashbacks and palpitations ….  It’s obviously not worth it!

But, this is a familiar scenario for many, either just a couple of times a year or repeated regularly . Binge drinking and the harm it can cause, how it cognitively, physically and emotionally impacts us and those around us is significant and important to acknowledge. This post is not about problem drinking or addiction.

When we drink our bodies convert the alcohol into by-products, these products are metabolized by our liver. For example our liver converts alcohol into acetaldehyde and acetate. Drink a couple of drinks this happens smoothly, drink loads and the process is overwhelmed. We produce lots of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that need lots of antioxidants to mop them up. ROS that roam around for ages or by producing lots of them that overwhelm the process that cleans them up, can cause a lot of oxidative damage. ROS are implicated in a lot of chronic diseases.

Thes products increase the production of something called a thromboxane – these cause small blood vessel constriction, affect the production of natural killer cells ( an immune response) and the result is reliable hangover symptoms of headache and nausea and the chance of getting sick.

To some degree, as my youth speeds away from me in the rear view and since focusing on my sleep, tracked using the Oura ring, I’m deterred by the data I receive the morning after the night before. Strangely the hangover itself has not always been enough of a deterrent. That’s mad when you think about it. But evidence showing me that I have not had enough sleep , had sleep which is fragmented, the lack of deep sleep, my raised body temp and pulse with a lousy heart rate variability are nearly enough for me not to have a drink within the few hours before bed, or at least not many. I’ve noticed even two drinks in the evening affects my numbers also reflected in my ensuing ennui.

But, Christmas can be a more challenging time. There’s a mimosa with breakfast, a pre dinner cocktail, some fizzy stuff, wine, port with a bit of cheese- albeit spread through the day, it can pile up. Not to speak of the many pre Christmas gatherings – although these have been muted to some degree by ‘the virus’.

So how can we at least try and navigate this season and enjoy some alcohol without major physical and psychological repercussions. Going for abstinence can work for some. Kudos to you, but for those of us that don’t want to go full court press on boozelessness, here are some thoughts.

Day drinking!

Did I say that out loud? I’ve come to realise that the 3am finish and lack of sleep significantly affects the next day. Drinks with lunch or 2pm kick off and home by 7pm really, really makes a difference to the next day – because SLEEP!  It may still be fragmented and sweaty but more time in bed allows for MORE OF IT! This makes a difference. Be careful of starting early and finishing late..

‘What you drinking?’

Stick with the same drink. Choose a light coloured drink. A clear spirit, dry white wine, a light beer or sparkling wine.  Dark drinks have more ‘congeners’- which is a term to describe oxidised chemicals- these can contribute to gnarly hangovers.

This is a tough one, avoid shots!

Argh, just one and then…. just another. People like to ‘share the love’ with shots. The booze quickly hits your bloodstream and before you know it we are making choices we may regret the next day.

Limit the sugary and caffeinated mixers.  If you can sip vodka on the rocks with a squeeze of lime – you’re winning.

That sage advice to drink a little water with every alcoholic drink. This mitigates the dehydration aspect of drinking. Alcohol inhibits an enzyme called ADH ( Antidiuretic hormone) when this enzyme is inhibited we need to pee more – the seal is broken! 

Eat!

Eat a meal before drinking. Eggs are good- they are full of choline, your liver needs choline to do the hard work that’s coming up. Some olives, a few nuts with your martini? Marvellous. A smoked salmon blini? Healthy fats can slow alcohol absorption.

Accountability

Ask someone you trust to give you a nudge when you’re chasing one drink down with the next.

Don’t get into rounds.

Say out loud to everyone  – “don’t buy me any shots, cos you’ll be wasting your hard earned cash”.

Have a commitment the next day. A lunch, a dog walk, work..

Supplements 

There are some that may help with the liver detox of  these chemicals that build up and cause hangovers. Maligned as much as they are overused, there may be some truth to some of the old wives tales based on actual biochemistry.

Cysteine is a precursor to glutathione which is a powerful antioxidant made by our bodies. 

Vitamin C In combination with cysteine can counter the acetaldehyde produced reactive oxygen species made after alcohol ingestion, helping to protect against long-term damage of the liver.

Magnesium –  Levels are quickly depleted by alcohol.

Milk Thistle – Helps protect and replenish glutathione, the most important antioxidant in the process of detoxifying the harmful chemical produced by alcohol consumption.

Vitamin B6 – works synergistically with cysteine and Vit C and is depleted by alcohol intake.

Zinc – The enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase converts the hangover causing acetaldehydes into acetic acid which equals no badness. This enzyme needs zinc to do its job.

The next day go for a walk, get some sunlight on your face, have a cold shower, eat some eggs and perhaps some a couple of dessicated liver capsules if you can’t stomach the real thing.

This isn’t an endorsement of drunkenness. These are the tools that we use in our household those few times a year when we know a little extra structure will allow for a few drinks, a great time but hopefully not the tidal wave of doom that a hangover assaults you with.

If your intentions didn’t quite pay off then Ben Greenfield the biohacking fitness dude has a hangover drink. I’ve never tried it, but here it is:

  • 1 cup coconut water
  • ½ avocado
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 (1- to 2-inch) piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 heaping teaspoon chlorella
  • Pinch of sea salt

Enjoy this time where we get to gather with those we love. When we can show gratitude and care for eachother not only with the gifts that we give but with the words we say to each other and the efforts we make.

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