There are countless urban legends about drinking, from supposed wisdom about what gets you drunk the quickest, to tips on how to avoid a hangover, to rules of thumb for how you should buy and serve a fine wine. Many of them, however, aren’t rooted in science or data, but rather are elucidated from always-reliable field tests that tend to include several rounds of tequila shots. Passed down for years by elder fraternity brothers, teens sneaking their parents’ hooch, and other tipsy teachers, these myths are as stubborn as they are baseless.
Here are 10 things you’ve heard about alcohol and drinking that aren’t actually true.
1. Hard alcohol will get you drunk quicker.
Yes, hard liquor has a higher alcohol content than beer. But as long as you’re drinking them at the same speed, a shot of liquor in a mixer should give you the same buzz as a 12-ounce beer. Shots tend to get people drunker because they take them more quickly than they would drink a beer or a glass of wine.
2. Drinking beer gets you less drunk compared with drinking different types of alcohol.
“It’s the ethanol in alcohol that makes you drunk. The higher the ABV (alcohol by volume) of your drink, the more ethanol it contains,” Dr. Sarah Jarvis.
“The amount you drink matters more than the type of drinks you consume or how you mix them.”
3. Drinking one drink every hour will keep you sober enough to drive.
“There is no foolproof way of drinking and staying under the limit,” Jarvis said.
“The amount of alcohol you would need to drink to be considered over the drink driving limit varies from person to person. It depends on weight, gender, metabolism, type and the amount of alcohol you’re drinking, whether you’ve eaten recently, and your age.”
“Even small amounts of alcohol can affect your ability to drive so the only safe advice is to avoid any alcohol if you are driving.”
4. Drinking coffee, fresh air, or having a cold shower will sober you up more quickly.
“Only time will help you sober up,” Jarvis said. “Depending on your weight, it takes about one hour for a healthy liver to process one unit of alcohol.”
“Consider stopping drinking well before the end of the evening, so the process can begin before you go to bed. The best way to avoid a hangover is to moderate your drinking and have water or soft drinks between alcoholic drinks to avoid dehydration.”
“Remember that water won’t make you any less drunk or protect your liver or other organs from the damaging effects of alcohol.”
5. “Breaking the seal” aka the thought that after the first time you urinate while drinking, you’ll start to urinate more frequently for the rest of the night.
“A common side effect of drinking is needing the toilet just five minutes after your last visit,” Jarvis said. “This irritating experience (usually known as ‘breaking the seal’) happens because alcohol is a diuretic which means it acts on the kidneys to make you pee out much more than you take in. In fact, for every one gram of alcohol drunk, urine excretion increases by ten milliliters.”
“Alcohol also reduces the production of a hormone called vasopressin, which tells your kidneys to reabsorb water rather than flush it out through the bladder. With the body’s natural signal switched off the bladder is free to fill up with fluid.”
6. Drinking kills brain cells.
Long-term hard drinking isn’t great for the brain, but alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells like your mother warned it did. It does, however, impair brain function over time. Drinking can damage the ends of neurons, making it more difficult for them to relay signals. But that’s not quite the same thing as destroying entire cells.
7. Alcohol is a stimulant.
“Ethanol (the alcohol in beverages) acts to slow down the central nervous system including the brain,” Dr. Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University, said.
“It appears to do this via the neurotransmitter known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). Ethanol is a GABA agonist which means that it mimics the effect of GABA. The usual function that GABA performs is that of inhibition – in other words, it dampens down excitability. Thus drinking alcohol has the overall effect of slowing down the brain. That’s why drinking too much leads to slurred speech, difficulty making a coordinated movement, and problems being unable to think clearly.”
“Paradoxically it can feel like the opposite – that alcohol has a livening-up effect. This is because the parts of the brain that usually inhibit activity appear to become suppressed quickly.”
8. Over time your body can develop a tolerance to alcohol.
“We all respond differently to alcohol, based on factors like gender, body size, how fast you drink, and the amount of food and water you consume during a night out,” Jarvis said.
“Metabolism also has something to do with it. Regularly drinking above the government’s lower risk unit guidelines increases your tolerance to the short-term effects of alcohol – but not to the stress it puts on your liver.”
As tolerance increases, people tend to drink more. So even though you don’t feel like you are drinking enough to get drunk, your liver still takes the strain. This is why it’s important to have drinking days off and drink less when you do choose to drink.
9. Different kinds of drinks give you different kinds of hangovers.
“There is a generally held view that the darker alcoholic drinks such as red wine, whiskey, and rum produce more severe hangovers than transparent drinks like vodka, white rum, and gin,” said Stephens. “There is some truth in this because darker beverages generally have greater concentrations of congeners compared with lighter colored drinks.”
“Congeners are complex organic molecules that are found in alcoholic drinks either as a result of the fermentation and aging processes when organic materials derived from the grapes or grains used as ingredients break down. It has been estimated that bourbon has 37 times the amount of congeners as vodka.”
“The type of alcoholic drink can exacerbate hangover symptoms,” said Jarvis. “Even if two drinks contain the same alcohol content by volume. Simply put, darker liquors generally cause worse hangover symptoms.”
10. Eating a large meal before drinking alcohol will help reduce the risk of getting drunk.
“Eating a meal before you go out will only delay the rate of alcohol absorption,” Jarvis said. “If you go on to drink heavily, you will still get drunk.”
“However, eating a proper meal before a night out is a good idea. Carbs or protein such as pasta, potatoes, and chicken are good to eat before or while you’re out drinking as the slow release of energy will help to keep you full.”