As part of my school presentations I provide students with a couple of simple tips that they should always consider should they ever choose to drink alcohol in the future. The first is to ensure that you have a glass of water as your first drink and the second is to eat a fistful of food around an hour or so before you start drinking. These tips do not totally protect young people from the effects of alcohol but they certainly help them to prepare their bodies for the drinking experience ahead! What always surprises me is that when I do a follow-up session with the students the next year and ask them what they remember, they often have problems with the water message (usually quoting the ‘have a glass of water in between drinks’ message, which is correct, but much more difficult to actually do in practice), however, the ‘fistful of food’ is never forgotten. There’s something about the visual of a clenched fist that the young people really relate to and usually take on board.
So why a ‘fistful of food’? When you’re communicating with young people (or anyone for that matter) I believe it is important to keep the messages simple. For that reason, I tell young people that a fist is the size of your stomach (amazingly, it can expand up to 10 times its normal size to accommodate the food we eat!) and that if you’re going to drink alcohol it is important not to overfill it. Eating a fistful of food prior to drinking ensures that there is something in your stomach to ensure that the absorption of alcohol into the body doesn’t happen too quickly and possibly cause poisoning, i.e., you feel sick. Now this is an oversimplification of a very complex process and in actual fact, there are other reasons why you should eat a small amount prior to drinking. That said, the message is powerful and simple and hopefully provides young people with a simple strategy to keep them a little safer if they choose to drink alcohol.
So what’s the more complex reason for ensuring that you have something in your stomach before drinking?
When you were younger you were most
probably told many times to make sure you lined your stomach before you went
out drinking. There were many suggestions of what to use – but the most popular
has always been a glass of milk. The reason for doing this may vary – some
people say that it will prevent a hangover, whilst others just believe that it
will make the alcohol experience more pleasant. How true is this?
Firstly, it is important to remember that unlike
food, alcohol does not have to be digested before it can be absorbed into the
bloodstream. Alcohol molecules are small and pass quickly and easily into the
bloodstream. Some alcohol is immediately absorbed through the wall linings of
the stomach and into the bloodstream. The rest moves into the small intestine. All
in all alcohol makes its way through the digestive system pretty quickly.
However, on its way it can cause problems.
One of the major problems is that alcohol irritates
the lining of the stomach. When it becomes irritated the stomach secretes a protective
mucus and gastric juices. These juices don’t affect the alcohol that much, but
they do dilute its concentration in the stomach and can also delay the stomach
emptying as it would usually. This can lead to can stomach aches, nausea or
vomiting. If your stomach is empty when you drink, the irritation will most
probably be worse. Food, particularly those full of protein such as milk, meat
or eggs, appear to protect the stomach lining by slowing down the absorption of
alcohol because the stomach has to break it down with gastric juice to start
the process of digestion.
So it would appear that eating a small
meal (or as I like to say – a ‘fistful of food’), or at the very least, a glass of milk, before you drink alcohol, could
help prevent things from turning nasty.