about time

The Hazy Science of Day Drinking

Photo: David Woolfall/Getty Images

This week, Science of Us is exploring time: what makes it feel like it’s speeding up or slowing down, how we learn to tell the difference, and how we can learn to control it either way.

When it comes to booze, everyone’s got a strategy: liquor before beer; a full glass of water and 400 milligrams of ibuprofen before bed; eat carbs before, during, and after; no tequila under any circumstances. But there’s also the question of timing. Uncorking an early afternoon bottle of wine used to require a self-effacing, “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” and yet among a certain brunch-crazed demographic, weekend day drinking has become routine. Bottomless mimosas (or Bloody Marys) are simply part of the deal.

And for some reason, drinking four mimosas at brunch feels different than drinking, say, four gin-and-tonics in a bar after 9 p.m. It’s daytime! The sun is (maybe) shining! Instead of going to bed afterward, you’re going to the park for a picnic, or for a tipsy stroll about town. You may very well have consumed the same number of drinks (or more) than you would on a night out, and yet you don’t feel as drunk. But is there anything actually different about drinking during the day?

The answer is, appropriately, hazy. Nyree Dardarian, a professor of nutrition sciences at Drexel University, says that contrary to popular (mis)understanding, alcohol is metabolized at pretty much the same rate throughout the day. “Your metabolism is functioning 24 hours of the day,” she says. From her perspective, drinking during the day versus at night doesn’t shift our biological response so much as it does our behavior: “Somebody who’s drinking bottomless mimosas might sit there longer and eat more, and then miss their three o’clock workout.” Then again, you might be more of a late-night gyro-from-the-deli-type drinker. Much of how you feel after drinking during the day versus drinking at night depends on what you do (and consume) afterward — which might explain why my editor tells me she feels “kinda fine” after drinking outside all day, whereas I feel like death. And while it’s good to have food in your stomach before you drink, don’t think the two are canceling each other out. “Food in your stomach will delay gastric emptying, which will make the alcohol take longer to get into the blood system,” says Dardarian. “Would I suggest eating carbohydrates before drinking large volumes of alcohol? Yes, I would, but I would also probably suggest not drinking large volumes of alcohol.”

But let’s just say you were. Is there a “better” time to do it? The research is mixed, and sometimes contradictory. “It’s totally confusing,” says Alan Burdick, author of Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation. Burdick referred me to a 2001 study which found that subjects (rats, mind you) had an increased sensitivity to alcohol at nighttime. Because the researchers controlled for absorption, metabolism, and distribution of the alcohol consumed, they surmised this increase had to do with the body’s circadian rhythms — the physical and mental changes which closely hew to a 24-hour cycle in most living beings. Another study’s results seem to suggest the opposite: 40 male medical students, half of them given alcohol beforehand, took a cognitive test in the afternoon, and their results were compared to an identical experiment in which students were given the test in the evening. Unsurprisingly, the students who drank alcohol did much worse on the afternoon test than those who didn’t. But what was surprising was that there was very little cognitive difference between those who drank and those who didn’t before taking the test in the evening. As Burdick says, “The data is all over the place.”

Burdick also described a particularly cruel-sounding study in which students dosed with vodka-cranberries were made to hold their hands in ice water or watch a graphic video of eye surgery. The students exposed to these stressors were shown to reach peak blood-alcohol content (BAC) more quickly than those who were not, suggesting that alcohol is absorbed more quickly under duress. “There are a lot of factors at play,” says Burdick. “From my perspective, there’s the time of day affecting how quickly you metabolize alcohol, but there’s actually a lot of research that I’m only starting to look at that indicates alcohol consumption can alter your circadian rhythm, too.” According to Burdick, these effects could alter our vulnerability to liver disease, among other risk factors.

Dr. Joseph Bass, a professor at Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, tells me that leading researchers in the field of circadian rhythms aren’t pursuing the link to alcohol — which, fair enough — but suggests there is reason to believe it exists. When we wake up, when we’re hungry, when we go to bed — all of these things are ruled, on some level, by internal clocks which keep time with the Earth’s 24-hour rotation. “Clocks are in pretty much all cells of the body, including the liver, where alcohol is metabolized,” says Bass. He points to similar studies done with yeast, which have indicated that timing plays a role in the metabolic cycle. “The principles in terms of the chemistry are conserved [with alcohol], and they would support the idea that the metabolism of alcohol could also be programmed by the clock.”

What exactly that means for the bottomless mimosa drinker, researchers aren’t yet sure, but it seems safe to say it’s a matter of degree — there is no time of day at which alcohol has no impact whatsoever. If there were, you probably wouldn’t drink during it. What would be the point?

The Hazy Science of Day Drinking