One night while I was out drinking, I started the parade of libations with beer, my drink of choice. It wasn't long before our subsequent drinks involved the harder variety, at which point an alarmed friend whispered, "Are you sure that's a good idea? We're mixing the two." Bless her heart. She was referring to the age-old saying, of course: Beer before liquor, never been sicker; liquor before beer, you're in the clear.
This suggests that the order of your alcoholic drinks determines how quickly you go from "Woooo!" to barfing up your tacos. The world teems with memorable rhymes about alcohol, which seem to serve as cautionary advice against getting text-your-ex drunk. But is there any merit to this and other booze-related parables?
"It's the 'nocebo effect' at work—since there is no known science behind this," says Kamal Patel, nutritional researcher and director of Examine.com, an independent source for scientific information on nutrition and supplements. (The nocebo effect is when the mere suggestion of negative effects might actually bring about those negative effects. So it's actually the opposite of a placebo effect (where any perceived benefits may be due to the person's belief in getting a positive outcome.)
Put another way, people who remember this "helpful" rhyme from their college days may not only attribute their massive hangover to their drinking order, but also potentially feel worse because they believed it would, Patel says.
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The truth is, the total amount of alcohol you drink and the pace at which you drink ultimately determine where you stand on the spectrum between sobriety and highly belligerent trash-talking. In general, the liver processes one standard drink, about 0.6 fluid ounces, of alcohol per hour. When translated to different servings of alcohol, one standard drink is about 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, and one and a half ounces of liquor. However, the rate at which your liver processes this alcohol is also influenced by individual factors, such as the amount of food you've eaten, your body weight, sex hormones (yep), medication, and so on.
Regardless of whether you drank a shot followed by a beer or pounded a beer before one shot, you've technically drunk the same amount of alcohol. What it really comes down to, then, is your mindset: Normally, while in a totally sober and logical state, you might tell yourself, "I'm just having one drink tonight, I swear." And yet most of us are familiar with the feeling of wanting to drink more and potentially faster once our inhibitions have been lowered. One drink becomes three and—oops—you're drunk now. Now, beer comes in bigger glasses and typically takes longer to drink (unless you've shotgunned it, you champ). And one full pint of beer is going to slosh around more uncomfortably in your stomach than a shot of vodka would. The time it takes to consume it and the mild discomfort are likely to slow down your drinking.
In that sense, the opposite of the saying could potentially be true: If you feel fuller from the beer faster, it might slow your drinking pace down overall—similar to how the advice of eating slowly and pausing between every bite can help slow down your eating, leading to fewer calories eaten. So drinking a beer first could mean less drinking overall. Yet somehow the phrase Beer before liquor might make you a more reasonable drinker just didn't catch on.
Other alcohol-related sayings we've all heard: More bubbles, more buzz; Different kinds of drinks make you different kinds of drunk. Surely, the type of alcoholic drink can influence drunkenness levels and your dreaded hangover?
With the former, there's some flimsy evidence that alcohol from carbonated alcoholic drinks and diluted liquor, such as a vodka mixed with water or a sweet cocktail, are absorbed more quickly than non-carbonated drinks—meaning a mixed alcoholic drink might enter your bloodstream faster than an equivalent amount of alcohol in pure, shot form.
Meanwhile, the color of the drink might tell you something about how you're going to feel tomorrow. Darker spirits, like bourbon and rum, contain higher levels of congeners, which are byproducts that are created during the fermentation process. They are considered toxic substances and thought to be responsible for fiercer hangovers when compared to lighter (in color) alcohols like gin and vodka. In one such study, bourbon—due to its high levels of congener—was shown to be associated with worse hangovers than vodka. "Color is pretty well correlated with the congener content of alcoholic drinks," Patel says. So there really should be some kind of rhyme along the lines of Darken the spirit and tomorrow you'll feel it (like how we just made that up on the spot? You're welcome).
In short, the most important thing to remember when drinking is to pace yourself. Or carpe diem your Friday like a savage and just keep the Tylenol and ginger ale within arm's reach come morning.
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