Why Bubbly Makes You Giggly

Champagne's fizz gives it that extra punch

SUNDAY, Dec. 30, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Think champagne goes straight to your head? Now you can blame the bubbles.

British researchers took advantage of their own office party to find out whether the fizz in bubbly is critical to the drink's effects. And in the first study of its kind, described in the Dec. 22 issue of New Scientist, they linked the bubbles in champagne to getting drunk faster, staying drunk longer, and experiencing greater perceptual impairments.

In the name of science, a research team led by Fran Ridout, a research fellow at the University of Surrey's Human Psychopharmacology Unit, organized a series of "drinking parties" for volunteers in the unit.

All 12 of Ridout's colleagues volunteered to drink either two glasses of fizzy champagne or two glasses of "wine" -- champagne that Ridout had secretly flattened with an electric whisk. The amount in each drink was adjusted so that each person received the same amount of alcohol based on his body weight. The men and women were given 20 minutes to finish their drinks.

In the first study, Ridout tested each person's breath alcohol concentration at 15, 45, 90 and 120 minutes after they finished their drinks. There was no significant difference between the two groups.

But in a test that required the drinkers to keep a mouse-controlled cursor on a moving computer screen target and also click the mouse button every time they saw a flash at the corner of the screen, those who drank the bubbly champagne performed worse

During tests done 20 minutes and one hour after they finished drinking, the bubbly drinkers took almost 200 milliseconds to react to the flashes while the flat champagne group took 50 milliseconds longer than normal.

At a second drinking party one week later, the groups received the opposite type of drink and Ridout measured blood alcohol levels five, 10, 15, 20 and 25 minutes after they finished drinking. She found that after five minutes, those drinking bubbly with bubbles had an average of 0.54 milligrams of alcohol per milliliter of blood, while those who drank flat champagne had an average of 0.39 mg/mL.

By the end of the experiment, those imbibing with bubbly had an average blood alcohol reading of 0.7 mg/ml, compared to 0.58 mg/mL among those drinking flat champagne.

Neither of the drinks affected anyone's working memory or general reaction times, but the fizzy drinkers had greater difficulties spotting patterns interspersed with random sequences of numbers.

No one knows why bubbles might have this effect, says Ridout. "It's clear that it alters the rate from which alcohol is emptied from the stomach," she says.

"In general, a relatively small amount of alcohol is absorbed in the stomach, and it passes quite quickly to the small intestine, where absorption is more rapid," she says. "This suggest that the bubbles in some way make gastric emptying faster, but that's not necessarily the case."

Mitchell Earleywine, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has studied the effects of alcohol on perception and performance. He says one theory suggests that the sphincter that connects the esophagus and the stomach responds to the bubbles in champagne or other carbonated drinks.

"The bubbles bang up against this sphincter, and allow it to open more readily," he says. "Then more of the beverage ends up going down more quickly, and then that allows for quicker absorption. Both the stomach and the small intestine end up getting a larger quantity of alcohol faster."

Although there were no adverse effects of the study, Ridout says that several women had to be retrieved by their husbands. "[One or two] of the people who'd been having [bubbly] champagne did seem quite drunk," she adds.

That should remind partygoers that they shouldn't drive after drinking a few glasses of champagne, she adds.

The bubbly is not the same as wine, she says. "Our study has shown that it is, actually, more intoxicating, and really, you shouldn't be driving if you've been drinking it at all."

One interesting element, however, is that the shape of the glass used for the champagne may be a factor, she adds. Large goblets have more surface area for the bubbles to dissipate, while flutes create only a small surface area.

"In fact," she says, "in the Victorian times, men used to carry swizzle sticks and swish the bubbles out of the ladies' champagne before [handing] it to [them]. This was really in an effort to reduce the bubbling and probably to reduce the intoxicating effect of the champagne."

Earleywine offers other effective ways to prevent sudden intoxication: Eat while drinking, because that slows the absorption of alcohol. And take your time finishing a drink.

Plus, he adds, don't forget the interaction between alcohol consumption and fatigue.

"This [holiday season] seems to be a time when folks are sleep-deprived, on top of drinking, and they often don't take that into account when they're making drinking decisions," he says.

An initial drink might make you feel perkier, he says, but the sedative effects of alcohol are worsened if you're tired.

What to Do: Check out these tips from Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the National Commission Against Drunk Driving. And for holiday driving tips, go to Progressive Insurance.

SOURCES: Interviews with Fran Ridout, B.Sc., research fellow, Human Psychopharmacology Unit, University of Surrey, Surrey, U.K.; Mitchell Earleywine, Ph.D., associate professor, department of psychology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Calif.; Dec. 22, 2001, New Scientist
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