In our 51st episode we take stock of things and decide to reflect on the effects alcohol has on our bodies while contemplating ways of drinking less to more safely enjoy these drinks we know and love.
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a beer brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
Stephen and Christopher are constantly aware of the risks of being professional drinkers.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
Should start this off by recommending Adam Rogers’ excellent Proof. A fantastic book about the science of alcohol from production to hangovers.
Immediate Effects: When you start drinking, alcohol goes straight to your head and begins altering yours experience nearly immediately. Ethanol blocks glutamate and GABA receptors, which creates a sense of calm and releases powerful doses of serotonin and dopamine. You’re essentially getting an artificial dose of opiates that your body creates naturally.
Very quickly, you sensory perception alters and you begin having changes in emotions and other mental activities. As this is happening, the liver begins working on the alcohol, which it considers a toxin. The alcohol is broken into acetaldehyde, which is a very dangerous compound. A healthy liver can further break the acetaldehyde down into harmless byproducts, but that’s only the case in relatively healthy people.
Once you get deeper into your cups, you begin to lose motor control, memory, and other physical and mental capacity, which results in imbalance and potential for injury.
And, of course, we’ve all heard of the happy drunk, angry drunk, or sad drunk. Alcohol creates an artificial emotional response and can heighten emotions we already have. All of this is a potential recipe for violence or self harm if the drinking goes too far.
Hangovers: Unfortunately, there is no clear understanding of why hangovers occur or how to treat them. There are plenty of theories about both, but so far we do not have good answers despite hangovers accounting for billions of dollars in lost productivity every year in the US alone.
Alcohol Dependence: As the body becomes accustomed to the dopamine and serotonin it receives as a reward for drinking, it needs more alcohol to get the same feeling. This leads to a cascade of increased consumption that can lead to heavy drinking or even addiction.
Long-term Effects: Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to a wide variety of diseases ranging from cancer to heart disease to cirrhosis of the liver. Many of these are irreversible and potentially fatal.
People’s relationship with alcohol can perhaps be classified broadly into these categories:
Never Drinkers – self explanatory.
Infrequent Drinkers – people who only partake rarely.
Social Drinkers – people who drink in social situations, but tend not to indulge otherwise.
Regular Drinkers – people who enjoy alcohol independently whether socializing or not.
Problem Drinkers – people who have moved into the danger zone of dependence and over-indulgence.
The borderline between healthy and unhealthy likely lies between regular and problem drinkers, though of course, regular drinkers may suffer some of the same long-term health effects as problem drinkers.
If you’re looking for ways to be more mindful in your drinking, here are a few potential strategies.
- Count your drinks – simply being aware can be useful. Stephen uses Reframe.
- Hydrate – water or rehydration drinks like Gatorade.
- Eat while drinking – fills your stomach and give the body nutrients.
- Education – learn about the effects of alcohol on your body. Reframe can help here too.
- Take a day off now and again.
- Quit for a week or so every so often to check on yourself.
How Japanese Spirits Can Help
No alcohol consumption can be considered a healthy behavior, but if you are going to enjoy drinking, you may as well try to minimize its negative effects. Japanese drinking customs can help with that.
- Japanese drinks are almost always accompanied with food. Embrace that.
- Shochu is almost always consumed with dilution. That can help reduce intake.
- Communal service – sharing a carafe of shochu or awamori will make you drink more slowly than going by the glass.
- Vacuum distilled shochu lacks many of the congeners that are believed to be responsible for hangovers.
- KyuKanbi – take a regular day (or days) off from drinking.