Getting drunk on Red Bull and vodka

Heymatt: My friend drinks Red Bull and vodka. He says he doesn’t get drunk that way. How does that happen?
— Norma, via email

Well, it doesn’t happen. He just thinks it happens. Energy drinks don’t change how our bodies metabolize alcohol or reduce blood-alcohol levels, but they can make us believe we’re not as looped as we are. The primary actors in “energy” drinks are sugars and caffeine and/or caffeine act-alikes (taurine, guarine). The only real energy our bodies get comes from the sugars. (Fats also supply energy, but the drinks don’t contain fat.) We can’t get true energy from caffeine. All that does is perk us up mentally, give us some muscle endurance, and reduce the sensation of being tired. It reacts with our central nervous systems; we don’t extract body energy from the caffeine. It buzzes us by blocking the chemicals that make us feel tired and that induce sleep. Not that we no longer need sleep. We just don’t feel the sensation of sleepiness. Thus the post-energy-drink crash. Caffeine also mimics the effects of adrenaline and makes our hearts pump harder.

Researchers believe that a lot of the “sobering” effects of energy drinks are really a placebo effect. We expect not to feel drunk, therefore we don’t. But in a European study of the effects of energy drinks on driving skills, they found that the drink provided some slight improvement. Less weaving and shoulder driving. But beware. The study was very small, hasn’t been replicated, and shouldn’t be used as an excuse to drink and drive, sez the MA squad of lawyers. Individuals react differently to caffeine and alcohol. If you’re pulled over and eventually take an alcohol test, you’ll show up officially drunk, no matter how perky you feel.

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