For centuries people have tried to come up with strategies to reduce the negative effects of alcohol, and for the most part they don’t work. Some people say that clear spirits, like vodka, give less of a hangover and there is even a small amount of research about congeners pointing in that direction, however it doesn’t pan out. Let me explain by detailing what causes a hangover and give a great example.
When you consume alcohol your body is well equipped to process it and remove it from the body since a variety of alcohols are founds in natural products, like fruit juice and when the body metabolizes things like pectin, which produces methanol, naturally. It is estimated that a typical person clears 1 to 2 grams of methanol from their body each day just from consuming all natural foods, mostly fruit.
There are two key enzymes that the body uses to produce alcohol and its byproducts. The first is alcohol dehydrogenase which converts alcohol into aldehydes and sometimes ketones. The aldehydes are then converted to carboxylic acids, like acetic acid (vinegar) with the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2). The problem with excess alcohol consumption is that our bodies only have so much of these enzymes and when there is more alcohol than available enzymes we end up getting intoxicated and then develop a hangover.
The majority of a hangover is caused by the accumulation of aldehydes in the body, and in the case of ethanol, it is acetaldehyde. Now, this may sound complicated, but it isn’t. In the medical world, they use a drug called disulfiram (Antabuse) to treat alcohol use disorder. The way disulfiram works is by blocking acetaldehyde dehydrogenase which stops the acetaldehyde from being converted to acetic acid, so the acetaldehyde circulates in the body causing almost immediate hangover-like effects, even with a small amount of alcohol. Disulfiram is quite effective at stopping a person from drinking because they get zero enjoyment of alcohol and just get an instant hangover.
Though poorly made spirits with excess congeners can make for a slightly worse hangover (it would be hard to quantify) the fact is that vodka can still give you a bad hangover. So why do some people say it doesn’t effect them? Youth and good health seem to be the answers.
Ethanol converts to acetic acid (vinegar) but 30 ml (1 oz) of ethanol effectively converts to 30 ml of acetic acid. At 40% ABV that is equivalent to 300 ml (10 oz) of 4% vinegar.
So if you ever wonder where the term “pickled” comes from, in reference to being drunk, there you have it.
Alcohol flushing syndrome is similar and caused by a genetic variation in the production of ALDH2 that causes intolerance to alcohol, which makes drinking alcohol unpleasant.