It's the world's most used drug, and the drug that most frequently sends users to the emergency room, and yet less than 60 percent of heavy drinkers recognize that their habits put them at high risk, according to the 2014 Global Drug Survey.
Whether it's because of alcohol's celebratory feel or -- in moderation -- its health benefits or simply its ubiquity in social gatherings, many drinkers just don't take their drinking seriously. We asked Kenneth R. Warren, Ph.D., deputy director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), to help set the record straight.
Myth 1: You can have one alcoholic drink an hour and still drive home.
You've probably heard the theory that our bodies naturally process a drink an hour. But actually, says Warren, it's more like two hours. "The average rate of alcohol metabolism is 100 milligrams of alcohol per kilogram of bodyweight per hour," he says. "For a typical 160-pound man, this would translate into 7 grams of alcohol in an hour. The so-called standard serving, a 12-ounce bottle of bear, is 14 grams of alcohol, so it would take two hours to fully metabolize it. For most people, if you drink one drink an hour, you're going to become more and more impaired each hour." For that 160-pound person, he says, at the rate of one drink an hour, four hours of drinking is enough to get you to a blood alcohol concentration of .08 -- aka legally drunk.
Myth 2: You can sober up quickly if you have to.
Nothing speeds up the process, not a hot cup of coffee nor a cold shower. Caffeine can actually do more harm than good, says Warren. "Caffeine is a stimulant, and because of that, a person's going to be more awake but just as much impaired," he says. "It can give an individual a false degree of confidence that they are not impaired," he says, which could lead to riskier behavior and dangerous decisions.
Myth 3: "Break the seal" and you'll spend all night in line for the bathroom.
Drinking alcohol will send you to the bathroom more frequently than if you abstained. Booze suppresses the hormone vasopressin, which means more liquid than usual is redirected to the bladder. Alcohol is also a diuretic, so more water is squeezed out of each cell in our bodies when we drink. That extra fluid is also sent to the bladder. Suddenly, you've really got to go -- and as you continue drinking, the amount of fluids you need to get rid of only increases. But! It has nothing to do with how long you postpone your first trip.
Myth 4: Beer before liquor, never been sicker.
In reality, you're probably finding yourself in the throes of a wicked hangover because of the total amount of alcohol you consumed, not the order in which you consumed it, the New York Times reported. "The pattern, more often, is that people will have beer and then move on to liquor at the end of the night, and so they think it's the liquor that made them sick," Carlton K. Erickson, director of the Addiction Science Research and Education Center at the University of Texas College of Pharmacy, told the Times in 2006. "But simply mixing the two really has nothing to do with it."
Myth 5: Drinking beer gives you a beer belly.
It certainly can -- but so can anything you consume in excess. That stereotypical beer-drinker's gut is a sign you're overdoing it on something, but not necessarily beer. "[M]ost beer bellies are just due to excessive calories from any source, beer among them," Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University told The Huffington Post in 2013.
Myth 6: A nightcap will help you sleep.
A drink before bedtime can make it easier to fall asleep, but booze-fueled snoozing quickly becomes disrupted. According to a 2013 review of the research, alcohol typically disrupts sleep during rapid eye movement or REM sleep, leading to a decreased amount of time spent in this crucial stage.
Myth 7: Those hangover prevention "shots" are the answer.
There's no scientific evidence to support any of the claims made on those products marketed as the cure to all hangovers, no matter how many vitamins they're packed with, says Warren. "In the past, [manufacturers] have added thiamine or folate or vitamin B6 or vitamin B12 and claimed this helps speed the rate of clearance of alcohol," he says. "There's no basis and no evidence to indicate that that actually does happen."
Myth 8: A bacon, egg and cheese the morning after will get you back to normal.
Just about every reveler has his or her own hangover-busting meal of choice, but in actuality what you eat before (or during) drinking is more important, says Warren. "If you eat before you drink or while you drink, the effect of the food is to decrease the rate of absorption of alcohol into the body and ... you will not get as high of a blood alcohol concentration," he says. But there's no research to support any benefits of any particular post-party breakfast.
Myth 9: Passing out from drinking isn't that big of a deal.
At one point or another, we've likely all heard a frat brother brag about waking up across the quad from last night's rager -- as if passing out was simply a level of intoxication and not a life-threatening situation. "Alcohol poisoning is drinking a sufficient amount of alcohol to suppress the central nervous system so that an individual stops required bodily functions," says Warren. Reflexes that keep us alive -- like coughing, gagging, breathing -- can be shut down completely, which can cause death directly, or, as is more common, can cause someone who vomits to inhale the vomit and drown. "People have to know how much they are drinking and make sure they do not put their life at risk," says Warren.
Correction: A previous version of this story conflated blacking out with passing out.