Month: December 2015

This video explains the science of why we get hangovers, and how to prevent one


new year's eve partyBill Wilson/Flickr

As the clock counts down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, many of you will probably be engaging in a time-honored tradition: Getting wasted.

But those celebratory libations probably won’t feel so good the next morning, when the dreaded hangover sets in. So what exactly causes a hangover, and is there any way to keep it at bay?

Luckily, the smart people at the American Chemical Society (ACS) put together a handy video that explains the chemistry of hangovers.

The science of hangovers

It’s no surprise the hangovers are caused by drinking too much alcohol. The main symptomsinclude fatigue, dehydration, headaches, nausea and vomiting, poor sleep, and dizziness.

According to the ACS video, here’s what’s going on your body when you’ve had a little too much to drink: Alcohol is broken down by two enzymes, or proteins, in the liver — ADH and ALDH. ADH converts alcohol (ethanol) into a toxin compound called acetaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. Then, ALDH breaks acetaldehyde down into acetate, which then breaks down into carbon dioxide and water.

High levels of acetaldehyde may lead to impaired thinking, memory loss, dry mouth, and other symptoms, research suggests.

Alcohol is also a notorious diuretic — it makes you have to use the bathroom more, because it interferes with the production of a hormone called vasopressin, which controls how much water your kidneys excrete.

Drinking can also mess with your sleep. Alcohol gets in the way of two important brain chemicals involved in sleep and wakefulness. It boosts the effects of GABA, a chemical that inhibits or blocks nerve signals, and suppresses the effects of glutamate, a chemical that ramps up brain activity.

As a result, alcohol makes you sleepy. But it also stops you from having as much rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, which is important for recharging your mental batteries.

The nausea and vomiting many people feel after drinking too much comes from the fact that alcohol can damage the mucus lining in your stomach that seals off the strongly acidic contents inside.

So, is there a way to avoid all this pain and suffering?

Preventing hangovers

hangoverBill Wilson/Flickr

The ACS video offers a few tips that may help with a hangover, though you may want to take these with a grain of salt given some recent research (details on that below):

  • Eat eggs: They contain high levels of an amino acid called L-cysteine, which can help break down acetaldehyde.
  • Don’t drink anything at least an hour and a half before going to bed.
  • Drink one glass of water for every serving of alcohol (one shot, one beer, one glass of wine) you consume to help prevent dehydration.
  • Eat a heavy meal before drinking, especially one rich in proteins, which may slow down the absorption of alcohol and help protect your stomach lining.

Despite these tips, keep in mind that a recent study reported by BBC News suggested that eating food and drinking lots of water had no effect on preventing a hangover.

For that study, a team of Dutch researchers asked 826 students to describe their most recent drinking experience that led to a hangover, and whether they’d eaten or drunk anything before. The results suggested that food and drink had no effect on the severity of the hangovers they reported.

The only sure-fire way to avoid a hangover is to not drink too much in the first place, the researchers said.


First state raises smoking age to 21

HONOLULU — Hawaii is raising the legal smoking age to 21 for traditional and electronic cigarettes on Jan. 1, becoming the first state in the nation to do so.

Public health officials are hoping that by making it more difficult for young people to get their hands on cigarettes, they will keep them from developing an unhealthy addiction.

“In Hawaii, about one in four students in high school try their first cigarette each year, and one in three who get hooked will die prematurely,” said Lola Irvin, administrator with the chronic disease prevention and health promotion division of the Hawaii Department of Health.

Officials included electronic smoking devices in the law after noticing a spike in the number of students trying electronic cigarettes. The percentage of Hawaii public high school students smoking e-cigarettes quadrupled over four years to 22 percent in 2015, and among middle-schoolers, 12 percent reported using them in 2015, a sixfold increase over four years.

While Hawaii is the first state to raise the smoking age to 21, more than 100 cities and counties have already done so, including New York City. The town of Needham, Massachusetts, raised the smoking age to 21 in 2005, and a decade later the percentage of adults smoking was 50 percent lower than the rest of the state.

Several military bases in Hawaii expressed their support for the move, saying their bases would comply with the state law.

“We see it as a fitness and readiness issue,” said Bill Doughty, spokesman for the Navy Region Hawaii. “When we can prevent sailors from smoking or using tobacco, if we can get them to quit, then that improves their fitness and readiness, and it saves them a ton of money too.”

But critics say that if a man or woman is old enough to potentially die defending their country, they’re old enough to make a decision about smoking. “If you can serve the country, you should be able to have a drink and a cigarette,” said Justin Warren, 22, an X-ray technician in the Army.

Taylor Dwyer, 21, also an Army X-ray technician, said smoking is a “way for us to come down after the work day. It’s not like a regular work day. It’s a lot more stressful, especially for people who are in combat jobs.”

Rear Adm. John Fuller, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, countered those arguments in a blog post, saying “If someone is young enough to fight for their country, they should be free from addiction to a deadly drug.”

As the state begins enforcing the law, the first three months of the year will be dedicated to educating the public, so warnings will be handed out instead of fines, officials said.

After that, young people caught smoking will be fined $10 for the first offense and $50 or community service for any further offenses. Retailers caught selling cigarettes to people under 21 can be fined $500 for the first offense and up to $2,000 for later offenses.

The Health Department has distributed about 4,000 signs to 650 vendors, said Lila Johnson, public health educator at the agency. To reach tourists, officials have been meeting with representatives from the tourism industry, business and hotels, and officials plan to produce signs in different languages, she said.

“People are going to be coming in and out of our state that aren’t aware of it,” Johnson said. “It’s a matter of education. We hope to see a lot more states picking it up so we’re not the only one.”

Sabrina Olaes, 18, said she started organizing events to educate her classmates about the dangers of smoking after getting frustrated finding herself surrounded by fumes from electronic cigarettes in the girl’s bathroom at her school.

She called the tobacco industry’s marketing practices deceptive, and said some of the flavors of electronic cigarettes are targeted at young people. But her smoking friends didn’t always want to hear what she had to say.

“It’s not easy conveying your opinions to people who may not agree with you, and I’ve definitely made a lot of enemies, but also a lot of allies,” Olaes said. “Even though you don’t get them to quit right away, you do get them to second-guess their choices.”

Home births are on the rise. But they come with some risks.

Choosing to have a baby outside a hospital comes with a slight increased risk of death to the baby in the United States but a lower likelihood of a C-section, according to a study of Oregon births published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

But the overall risks to the baby remained small regardless of the birth plan — there were about two deaths per 1,000 births among planned hospital births, vs. four deaths per 1,000 births planned at home or in birthing centers.

“Absolute risk of death is low in all settings — less than half of a percent. … And in terms of that added risk, we see how someone weighs that as a personal choice,” said Jonathan Snowden, an epidemiologist at Oregon Health and Science University who led the study, which examined nearly 80,000 low-risk births in Oregon during 2012 and 2013.

Women who planned to give birth outside of the hospital experienced very different kinds of birth. Far fewer women had their labor induced. A quarter of women who planned hospital births had C-sections that can add serious complications to future pregnancies — five times the rate of C-section among those who planned to give birth outside the hospital. For planned out-of-hospital births, there was an increase in some complications, such as seizures and low Apgar scores (a measure of a newborn’s overall health), but the absolute risk remained low.

Giving birth at home is still a rarity — less than 1 percent of women in the United States gave birth at home in 2012. But home births have been on the rise, and it has been hard to assess how safe it is, because the numbers get conflated in confusing ways. That’s because U.S. birth certificates only record where a birth took place, so women who intended to give birth at home or at a birthing center and were transferred to a hospital would be counted as hospital-based births. On the flip side, women who went into labor at home and never made it to the hospital would be counted as home births.

[New study challenges decades-old guidelines on how many pregnant women should get C-sections]

In 2012, Oregon added a question to its birth certificate on whether a birth was planned to take place at a hospital or elsewhere, and the change provided researchers a rare opportunity to disentangle the real health outcomes associated with both birth plans. Midwives and obstetricians praised the study.