Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?


Why Indians are alcoholics and Asians can’t drink

Lords of the Drinks

A bit of a controversial post for some perhaps, but we’re gonna take a look at the genetic differences between races in relation to alcohol. The idea came up when reading an article on Mayas (Indians in central America) and how they showed higher rates of alcoholism. Another good example are the native Australians, the Aboriginals. Now a friend once told me about a teacher who told him there is no such thing as different races. Well, tell that to the thousands of white runners following a few Kenyans in a marathon. Of course there are differences. And not all are as clear to see as a skin color or the shape of the eyes (not to mention other body parts). Let’s check out the racial differences where it comes to the use of alcohol.

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Baby blue eyed boozers get bossed

Mexican faceApparently blue eyed people are seen as less dominant than brown-eyed people – regardless of whether or not they are attractive (see my earlier post; Take me to your (tall and probably attractive) leader).

But it’s not just because of the eye colour. Czech researchers think it might be because people with blue eyes are treated as children longer and become conditioned to being more submissive.

And according to economics writer Chris Dillow in The Times (2/6/10): binge-drinking is more common in northern than southern Europe. Researchers at the Universities  of Oslo and Wyoming say that it’s in the genes and because blue-eyed people, more common in the North, are shyer they drink more to loosen their inhibitions.

Back in December 2010 it was reported that Scientists had discovered a gene, HTR2B, which can make people more susceptible to bouts of sudden aggression when under the influence of alcohol. Research with violent criminals in Finnish prisons found they were three times more likely to carry an abnormal variant of the gene than ordinary people.

Although not the full answer as to why people engage in spontaneous and motiveless violence it explains how it can be triggered by other genetic and environmental factors.

This Q20* gene mutation is only found in Finns, and in only 1% of them, and as most of whom are not violent so there is no point in screening for it.

And it doesn’t explain what happens in the UK. But research at the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism published in Nature shows that genetic factors coupled with drug and alcohol abuse can lead to impulsivity and spontaneous violence.

The Finns were chosen for the prison study because they are genetically distinct but they also appear to have problems with depression and drinking, maybe due to the long hours of darkness. The first time I was in Helsinki it was still Winter yet there were a number of people lying in the streets in a drunken stupour in the freezing cold. Passers-by just checked to see if they were OK and moved on as if it were quite normal.

And the last time I was in Helsinki wandering round a supermarket I couldn’t find the section for wines and spirits. I eventually asked a local who pointed me to a separate Alco section (the beer was with the bottled water so it shows their take on what constitutes an alcoholic drink)She explained that it was for their own good as alcohol-related problems are in their genes. Seems like she was right.

Despite that particular problem Finland is one of the most highly rated countries in the world on a range of measures and a popular one for people who want to live elsewhere.

First version posted June 2010


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A little of what you fancy..

does you good. A large US health and lifestyle study of 14,000 female nurses reported in the Times suggests that a moderate alcohol intake can help middle-aged women enjoy better health and look forward to a longer life.

Dr Sun from the Harvard School of Public Health wrote that; “Moderate alcohol consumption was associated with modestly better overall health status”.

The good news is that two shots of spirits or three small glasses of wine improved the odds of successful ageing ie living to 70 and free of cancer, heart conditions, and other chronic diseases, by 28%.

They also found that moderate consumption had “profound positive effects” reducing insulin resistance, inflammation, and cholesterol.

Other researchers, whilst accepting the importance of this research, add a note of caution. These women may enjoy good health anyway, have good appetites and eat healthily, and have a good social life – all of which promote successful ageing.

I previously posted on booze and hangover cures and then found other information which supported the idea that booze isn’t all bad.

For example, scientists at Granada university in Spain reported that drinking beer rehydrated you better than water after exercise. They think the sugars, salts, and bubbles help the body absorb fluids quicker.

CAMRA believes that drinking beer in moderation also has benefits. Studies have shown that drinking 1 or 2 units a day can reduce the risk of heart disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. This is partly because it contains easily absorbed anti-oxidants.

Beer’s ingredients of malted barley, hops and yeast are rich sources of vitamins and minerals – such as silicon which may lower the risk of osteoporosis. The Beer Academy says beer was once known as “liquid bread” which makes sense when you think that cereals are good for us so why not beer made from the same source? A pint of beer will supply 5% of your body’s daily protein needs and has no fat or cholesterol. It also has the same calories as wine and a lot less than milk or apple juice.

Beer is also low in sodium and high in potassium – two chemicals which will help control blood pressure. And alcohol in small amounts is believed to help protect against a whole range of diseases mentioned above. It also raises the levels of good cholesterol which reduces coronary heart disease.

And if you re now desperate to have a pint of this “health improving” drink, the best time to drink alcohol is at five in the afternoon. According to scientists at the University of Colorado that’s when our body’s tolerance to alcohol is at its highest.

However if you are pregnant, a child, or a driver -it’s best to avoid it all together.


Booze & hangover cures – fact and fiction

At this time of year, the festive system, many of us will overindulge, not least in the amount of alcohol we consume.

And many regular over-indulgers will have their own beliefs about the best way to get drunk and the best way to get rid of the resulting hangover.

The New Scientist christmas issue has gone to the trouble of checking out many of these ideas. So here we go:

Drinking coffee will sober you up faster?

False. Caffeine will make you more alert but won’t lower your blood alcohol levels. Drinking coffee might actually make it harder for you to realise you’re drunk or fool you into thinking you are sober.

Beer before wine, you’ll be fine?

Not true. It doesn’t matter what combination you have it’s the total amount of alcohol that matters.

Darker spirits give you a bigger hangover than clear spirits?

No clear evidence. Some research says yes but others no. So more research is needed!

Shaken not stirred?

True James Bond was right. For some reason Martinis shaken not stirred are more effective. They also have a better taste in the mouth due to microscopic ice shards. Bond may have preferred his drink that way as it reduced the oily taste left by potato based vodka popular at the time.

A spoon suspended in the neck of a champagne bottle helps keep the fizz in the bottle?

No. A spoon has no effect at all. Champagne stays fizzier longer than people think.

Champagne gets you drunker than wine?

True. But no-one knows why. Perhaps the bubbles stimulate the stomach and increase the absorption of alcohol.

Different wines for different food?

True. In part. You don’t have to drink white wine with fish, red ones can be good too. It depends on the iron content of the wine as those with a high content can leave a fishy after-taste. So if you are eating scallops drink a low iron red wine.

Alcohol is good for your health.

In moderation. There is some evidence that moderate alcohol consumption may protect the heart but there are risks for cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, bowel and breasts the more you drink.

Absinthe is hallucinogenic?

False. The reputation of the “green fairy” for causing hallucinations, mental instability, and criminal behaviour is unfounded. A favourite drink of Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde, it was banned in several European countries in the 1900s. Wormwood is the ingredient which contains thujone. It doesn’t have a cannabis-like effect but is toxic to nerve cells at high doses and can cause seizures. However experts now believe the results were down to either alcohol poisoning – it was 70% alcohol, twice the level of most other spirits –  or adulteration by methanol, common with cheap liquor.

You get drunk faster drinking through a straw?

False. Drinks that come with straws are often fruity flavours that mask the alcohol so you drink them faster. Also they are more likely to be drunk by women who are more susceptible to alcohol.

Drinking beer gives you a beer belly?

False. Although alcohol is high in calories – a litre of continental lager contains 350 kcal and a pint of British bitter about 170 kcal – a study of 2000 Czechs (who drink more beer than anyone else) found no connection with the amount of beer consumed and the size of the drinker’s stomach.

Don’t worry there are plenty of cures for hangovers?

Not true. A recent comprehensive review for the benefits of banana, aspirin, Vegemite (Marmite), fructose, glucose, artichoke, prickly pear as well as the drugs tropisetron and tolfenamic found that there was no scientific evidence of any cure or prevention for alcoholic hangovers.

And the hair of the dog only makes the hangover last longer. The good news is that one in four people are naturally resistant to hangovers probably due to genetic differences in the way they metabolise alcohol.

And Dr Mark in the Times (21/12/2010) also contributes to this debate.

Apparently many Danes believe you can get drunk by filling your wellington boots with alcohol.

Not true. After sitting for 3 hours with their feet in washing up bowls full of vodka volunteers were found to have no alcohol in their system.

Drinking water prevents hangovers?

People believe drinking alcohol causes dehydration. Weaker drinks like beer or spirits with mixers won’t cause dehydration although they may make your mouth feel dry because of the astringent effect of alcohol. Stronger ones like wine,port, sherry, liqueurs, and straight spirits cause significant water loss. As a guide Dr Mark suggests one glass of water for every two glasses of wine.

Beer is more fattening than wine?

Only the stronger beers. Alcohol accounts for most of the calories in drinks. A pint of average strength beer contains the same calories as a glass of wine or a double shot of spirits. But strong beers and ciders can contain double the calories.

Different drinks affect your mood in different ways?

Not true. It’s the strength of the drink and your underlying personality.  Alcohol is both a sedative and a disinhibitor. So some people will become the life and soul of the party, some will become withdrawn and tearful, while others will become aggressive or promiscuous.

What gets you drunk quicker?

Warm drinks between 10 and 20 percent alcohol are absorbed quickest which explains why mulled wine is a good way to start off a party. Stronger drinks and cold drinks slow gastric emptying and impair absorption as does a full stomach. So eating before you drink will slow the rate of absorption and gives your body time to deal with it.

A fry-up is the best way to get over your hangover?

No. As we know from the New Scientist article there are no certain cures for hangovers. A more scientific approach is:

  • take paracetamol (not aspirin or ibuprofen as these can worsen indigestion or nausea)
  • to raise low blood pressure eat something sweet such as jam on toast or a doughnut
  • take caffeine in the form of coffee or strong tea
  • rehydrate but not with fruit juices as they can further irritate your stomach lining

Time to get back to the research. Cheers!

See also: Baby blue eyed boozers… and Drinking limits


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Drinking limits

Most people think alcohol helps you to relax and is a social lubricant.

So researchers wondered why drunk people tended to get into arguments.

We know from other research that people under the influence of alcohol are less capable of getting the punch line in jokes but it also seems that when we are under the influence we are more likely to see intent in behaviour even when none exists.

Given a number of situations, some of which were clearly no-ones fault, people under the influence of alcohol were significantly more likely to want to blame someone for their behaviour.

The experts think that it takes cognitive effort to overcome this “intentionality bias” and alcohol not only has a disinhibiting effect but also narrows attention and makes people under its influence less likely to consider alternative explanations.

Drunken people, like Napoleon, are more likely to believe that there is no such thing as an accident.

Updated 1 December 2010: A Scientific American blog reports on a study presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in August.   It says that we know alcohol impairs a person’s reasoning abilities but researchers found that booze also diminishes how smart others perceive us to be.

In a series of six experiments, the investigators consistently found that participants rated people in pictures, videos and face-to-face encounters as less intelligent when they held or drank alcoholic beverages than when they drank nonalcoholic beverages or nothing at all.

They called it the  “imbibing idiot bias”  and it even persisted when participants drank fake alcoholic beverages that did not interfere with their cognitive functioning.

Most strikingly, in mock interviews volunteers judged job candidates as less intelligent when they ordered an alcoholic drink—even when the person interviewing them had done so first.