How Alcoholic Spirits Do Their Work

Congeners. The word meant nothing to me before I noticed that I sometimes get congestion and the sniffles when drinking red wine. “Maybe it’s sulfites,” somebody suggested when I got congested and started snuffling after drinking red wine. But white wines, which don’t bother me in the least, are much richer in sulfites, which are added to prevent spoilage.

Nope, there are other ingredients in red wine which can conjure up allergic reactions. All alcoholic drinks, in fact, from wine and beer to those pop-skull potations we call “spirits,” contain myriad compounds besides alcohol. Those compounds both enhance the pleasure of libation and worsen the pain of celebration.

Popularly known as congeners,” they come from the plants and processes used to make alcohol taste better. They include methanol, acetone, ethyl acetate, methyl ketone, histamines, prostaglandins and even – pay attention you guys who think that real men booze it up – plant hormones, or phytoestrogens, which generate man-breasts and other feminine characteristics in men who drink too much.

Scientists have measured thousands of different congeners in a single liquor, depending on how far down the parts per million, or even billion or trillion, they’re willing to look. Congeners are a variety of volatile substances that get out of the intestines and readily cross the blood-brain barrier, and in the cells they have potential to exert a lot of effects.

Congeners are richer in red wine than in white. Unlike clear distillates such as vodka, “brown” spirits like brandy, dark rum and whiskey are dense in congeners from the years and years they spend in oak barrels to make them mellow and lip-smackingly delicious. But there’s nothing delicious about the morning after.

In one clinical study, for example, one group of test subjects drank 1.5 grams of bourbon per kilogram of body weight (that’s about six shots for me, at 200 pounds). Another group drank the same amount of vodka. Of the bourbon drinkers, 33% got a “severe hangover.” For the vodka drinkers, it was 3%. The researchers, of course, never claimed that the vodka drinkers were singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” when the sun came up. Alcohol needs no help from congeners to make us miserable.

Water-soluble, the alcohol stampedes for those parts of the body with the highest water concentration. The brain sucks it up like a sponge, and within 90 seconds after the first drink the alcohol is already starting to cross the blood-brain barrier, where the fun begins. Following a shot (1.5 ounces) of 80-proof booze or its equivalent, the blood alcohol content (BAC) peaks in 30-45 minutes, unless, of course, you keep pumping it in.

The rising tide of the BAC is the feel-good phase. Why do we feel bad for so long? A typical person who is seriously soused (BAC of 0.25) at 2 a.m. can still be too drunk to drive legally, according to his or her BAC, the next day at 1 p.m. … and not be alcohol-free until 7 that night.

All that time, the liver is turning alcohol first into acetaldehyde and then into acetic acid – vinegar, which makes the term “pickled” very apt. Acetic acid is harmless, but unconverted acetaldehyde is toxic. Flood the liver with more alcohol than it can handle, and the small amount of this poison that isn’t metabolized causes heart arrhythmia, palpitations, facial flushing dizziness and nausea by affecting the nerve signals that increase stomach acid.

As the kidneys strain to remove alcohol from the body, they also remove water, with its vitamins and minerals. The body is dehydrated, perhaps most noticeably the head: Lowered cranial blood pressure puts the brain in a vice-like bind, causing the pounding morning-after headache.

The general weakness and lethargy of a hangover is caused by the buildup in the body of lactic acid, another end product of alcohol metabolism. Athletes have to push themselves to the limit before the buildup of lactic acid sabotages the ability of their muscle fibers to contract. Alcohol allows us the convenience of achieving lactic “acidosis” without having to break a sweat.

Next-day fatigue is also a result of sleep deprivation caused by something called the rebound effect: The brain compensates for the sedative effect of alcohol by exciting our nerves. As the alcohol fades away, the excited nerves launch their own little party – and it’s hard to sleep with a party in your head. You wake up in the morning to find that the brain’s turbocharged neurons are still at it, amplifying the sensory processing of light and sound (which accounts for the dripping faucet that sounds like a cannon). If you really tie one on, your brain gets even with you by adding tremors, depression, anxiety, irritability and cranked-up sweat glands.

Alcohol also ratchets up the body’s reaction to allergens. Research has shown rising levels of immunoglobulin-E, the antibody specific to allergens, in the bodies of people who drink even moderate amounts of alcohol – sniff, sniff.

But which bogeys in the bourbon and demons in the dark run are most potent? Science grasps at drinking straws. Methanol is one possible culprit, somewhat higher in wine and brandy but present in all drinks. It’s a poison in and of itself. When people drink radiator fluid and go blind or die, it’s because they’re drinking methanol. The onset of hangover seems to track with methanol levels in the blood, researchers say. Methanol breaks down into formic acid, the ouch of ant bites and bee stings, and formaldehyde, the primary agent in embalming fluid. Sniff the skin of somebody who has really soaked their guts in alcohol the night before, and you can smell that formaldehyde seeping from their sweating pores.

Some think it’s the higher alcohols, especially butanol, that confer the hangover. The most prevalent impurity from grains is butanol. Old-timey moonshiners used to filter their product through bread, which absorbed the higher alcohols that give headaches.

Some people may get allergic reactions from agents like egg whites and fish protein used in the “fining” of wines, precipitating the solids. Research implicates a variety of other congeners as sources of significant reaction, from tannins and prostaglandins to tyramines and sulfites.

Histamines are what I suspect in my own red wine allergy. Histamines are the molecules that pour into your blood stream during an allergic response and make you sniffle. And guess what? Red wines can have up to 32 times the amount of histamines found in whites, 12 times the level in beer and six times the level in champagne.

And, my red wine allergy always seems to come with dinner. High-histamine foods like eggplant, Parmesan cheese and certain kinds of fish might be added to the histamine level of red wine, while the alcohol is increasing histamine absorption and boosting the overall immune response.

Unfortunately, for every study that supports one congener’s role as a primary irritant, there are others that question it. Congeners are poorly understood because society and funding sources still have petty predjudices about spending money on studying alcohol. That means it’s up to the individual to go where scientists fear to tread, each of us conducting an analysis of our own individual response to the spectrum of options. Opening bottle after bottle with all the sober gravity of the scientific endeavor. That’s my kind of research.

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