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Posted 05 January 2018

Alcohol and health: the mythbusting article

Is there a way to cure a hangover? Can some alcoholic drinks help improve our heart health? In what order should we drink wine, water and beer? We tell ourselves many things to feel better about our alcohol intake, but what truth is there in them? We asked the experts to find out.

  • Beer? Wine? Should we trust a certain popular rhyme?
  • Can you avoid the dreaded hangover?
  • Is there one drink we should be sticking to?

Writing for LV= Love Life, health journalist Sarah Graham (@SarahGraham7) busts the most common alcohol myths with the help of the experts.

1. Heart-healthy red wine?

The health conscious might opt to stick with mulled wine this winter, because of red wine’s supposed benefits in lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. But alcohol researcher Dr John Holmes (@JHolmesSheff), from the University of Sheffield, says it won’t make much difference.

‘When you look at the useful chemicals in red wine, you need to consume them in vast amounts for it actually to be beneficial,’ he explains. ‘Wine probably isn’t any better for you than beer; what really matters is the amount of alcohol in the drink.’

As we all know, too much of any alcohol can cause liver disease and various types of cancer. And, while there’s some evidence that moderate drinking protects against heart disease, John says this is ‘probably overstated’.

He adds: ‘Those benefits are fairly small and associated with relatively low levels of alcohol consumption.’

2. Beer before wine…

Sadly, there’s no truth in the saying ‘beer before wine and you'll be fine’.

‘The order in which you mix your drinks doesn’t make any difference to how drunk you get – except that fizzy drinks are absorbed more quickly – and it also won’t make any difference to your hangover,’ says Dr Niamh Fitzgerald (@NiamhCreate), a senior lecturer in Alcohol Studies at the University of Stirling.

‘Sometimes cheap alcohol will have more chemicals in it, known as congeners, which can give you a worse headache. But generally speaking, it doesn’t really matter what type of alcohol you drink – it’s more to do with how much.’

3. Daily drinking vs binge drinking

So is it healthier to drink a small amount each day, rather than overdoing it with a binge?

‘Everyone is likely to indulge a bit every so often, and there’s no magic pill to neutralise the effects,’ says John.

‘Try to limit how much you indulge, and have occasional alcohol-free days to give your body a bit of a break.’

He adds: ‘What’s recommended is spreading your alcohol over three or four days a week. Drinking your alcohol in occasional large bursts is worse for your body than spreading it out.’

4. Does hair of the dog really work?

The idea that you can avoid a hangover by carrying on drinking the next day is a popular one, but sadly it’s not a sustainable option.

‘If you don’t have anywhere to go or anything to do, it might make you feel better – but it’s obviously compounding the agony for your liver,’ Niamh says.

When it comes to other hangover ‘cures’, she adds: ‘The only thing that really sobers you up is time. You can make yourself feel better by having a shower, or having breakfast, if you can stomach it, to raise your blood sugar. But none of those things reduce the amount of alcohol that’s in your body,’ Niamh explains.

‘One of the biggest factors with hangovers is how much sleep you’ve had, so obviously if you’re tired, the hangover feels worse. Having a coffee will wake you up but, if there’s still alcohol in your system, you’ll still be drunk – just ‘wide awake’ drunk.’

5. Drinking water before bed prevents a hangover

We know hydration is key, but can glugging a pint of water before bed really undo an entire night’s drinking?

‘The more hydrated you are, the less bad you will feel the next morning,’ Niamh says.

However, she adds: ‘It can be quite hard to drink water before bed if you’re already full up with lots of liquid and feeling a bit nauseous.’

Instead, she advises: ‘Drink water all day before going out, so that you start off quite well hydrated, and then try to drink water during the night.’

If you want to cut back on your drinking in 2018, all-out abstinence might not be the answer. But you could try cutting back a bit, spreading it out and staying hydrated with regular drinks of water.

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