Are human beings born with a blood alcohol level that’s 0.05 percent too low? One Norwegian psychiatrist, Finn Skårderud, believes that to be the case – and his theory forms the backbone of a catastrophic drinking experiment in Another Round, the critically acclaimed new comedy drama starring Mads Mikkelsen as a history teacher who has fallen off the wagon.
In the film, four teachers decide to start maintaining their blood alcohol level at 0.05 percent during the day as part of a study to see if there’s any truth to the theory. Unsurprisingly, things go off the rails fast, with personal and professional lives ruined as the men keep upping the amount they drink as part of the experiment, unaware of their increasing alcohol dependency.
Things may not end well, but the film still begs the question: is there any truth to this ridiculous-sounding theory? To get to the bottom of this, VICE spoke to Elliott Bird, a senior lecturer in physiology at Anglia Ruskin University, to find out what would happen if we tried to drink at this level.
VICE: First things first, is there any truth to the claim that humans are born with a blood alcohol level that is 0.05 percent “too low”?
Elliott Bird: There’s no truth to it at all. Obviously, the human body is born without any alcohol content, unless the mother was drinking at the point of delivery or during labour. If you don’t drink alcohol, it’s not in your blood. You don’t synthesise alcohol or brew it in your bloodstream or stomach. There are rare occasions where people eat decomposing apples that ferment in the stomach, but that’s one of the only instances where somebody could produce alcohol.
Where did the theory come from?
EB: The data used to arrive at that conclusion is very dubious, and seems to be using animal data. There are certain animals that have alcohol in their bloodstream, such as those that live in arctic environments, to effectively act as a de-ice. But that’s alcohol they produce themselves, not alcohol they drink, and these are very different species – reptiles and aquatic creatures, not mammals. They have a completely different physiology as well; they don’t use oxygen in the same way as humans, and they don’t use iron to bond red blood cells.
So, to use that data to backup a theory that humans were born with an alcohol deficiency isn’t a million miles away from being a flat Earther. They’ll only look at data that backs up their claim, even if it’s an easily disproven study made by two people.
Say somebody tried to emulate the experiment, keeping their blood alcohol level at 0.05 percent… what are the likely effects?
EB: It’s very difficult to put the 0.05 percent level in terms of units, but it is roughly the equivalent of somewhere between a pint and a half and two pints of strong beer per day, which is the equivalent of 20 to 30 units a week. That’s a significant amount of alcohol to drink on a day to day basis. The long term effects of that wouldn’t necessarily be catastrophic, but it would take a toll on your day to day life.
In isolation, that figure of two pints per day isn’t excessive, but it becomes excessive when it’s maintained and arrives at the weekly unit dose. Currently, the guidelines recommend that women don’t exceed 14 units a week, and men don’t exceed 21, and when talking about any group that has an alcohol dependence, we’re referring to groups who drink in excess of 30 units a week. Maintaining this experiment would put you very close to a level Public Health England would describe as alcohol dependent.
Of course, it should be pointed out that any level of alcohol is damaging to the human body, and that you’d start to see negative impacts beyond a blood alcohol level of 0.02 percent.
The film follows a group of middle aged men trying out this experiment. What would the difference be if it was about women or younger characters drinking at this same level?
EB: Based purely on the science, men are able to metabolise alcohol at a far easier rate than women, because they have more enzymes that are able to metabolise it. That’s why there’s a difference between the unit per week drinking rates for men and women, and not due to body size, which is what some people still assume. These enzymes are called ethanol dehydrogenase and it’s all about the quantity of these that the body has.
If women drink alcohol it stays in their bloodstream for a lot longer, meaning there are significantly more harmful effects if they would drink at this level. But – although it is safer for men to drink based on this science – middle-aged men are the worst offenders for drinking full stop. People say that binge drinking is a “disease of youth”, but it’s not – it’s middle aged men coming from work and having a bottle of wine every night. That’s the most common thing we’d classify as dangerous drinking.
Why are middle-aged men the worst offenders?
They’re not nuisance drinkers as much as they’re the group most vulnerable to the negative health effects from drinking at this level. It’s the steady, slow impact of middle-aged drinking that takes a toll on the body. Between the ages of 35 and 60 is where the damage is really being done, because the older we get the less enzymes we have in the body to break down the alcohol in an efficient way.
This makes alcohol move through the body via alternative pathways, the process of which produces acetaldehyde, which is incredibly harmful. It damages your vascular space, and stops your ability to relax blood vessels, which would cause long term high blood pressure. Acetaldehyde is one of the negative consequences of middle-aged drinking, and you start to produce it when you drink after the age of 35.
So, in short, don’t try this at home?
EB: If you have a couple of drinks at night it’s quite clear that having a couple of days for your liver to recover and reproduce those enzymes to break alcohol down is very sensible, and it’ll ensure you never reach the levels where those enzymes are irrecoverably replaced.