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Air of the Dog

Will adding oxygen to alcohol keep you from getting hung over?

Cory Donovan

By Henry Hong | Posted 3/31/2010

The first time I ever got a full physical, I was in my mid-20s and I'd just gotten a "real job" after a few years tending bar in Fells Point. Restaurant employees are generally big partiers, but these were especially hard-drinking years. And I was rapidly losing my youthful invulnerability to the dreaded hangover (or "veisalgia" in technical parlance, protip for calling in sick).

Other than the sheer novelty of it (lack of insurance being another signet of the restaurant industry), my reason for going to the doctor was to check on my trusty, overworked liver. My doctor was sympathetic in a nudge-nudge wink-wink sorta way, and gave me some not-by-the-book tips instead of suggesting something crazy like drinking less. For example, if you look at the palm of your hand and there are more red splotches than white, you've been drinking too much. And then, there was his tactic for avoiding a hangover: Eat a few pieces of bacon just before going out to drink. Not surprising, since salty and/or meaty foods are often consumed to stave off drunkeness and help with hangovers. In Korea, there is a whole category of cuisine called "anju" devoted to this purpose.

The doctor, who was Taiwanese, mentioned something about how animal fat helps break down alcohol or something, but I noted his benign resignation to the act of drinking itself. Asians in general seem to share this perspective, viewing drinking as a reality rather than a vice. The fact is, for as long as we've had enough processing power to recognize a buzz, humans have sought reliable ways to catch one. Too much drinking, of course, is hell on individual health and harmful to society, since presumably a sober worker is more effective than a shitfaced one. Not to get all objectivist, but things like ritualization and arbitrary morals perhaps serve to keep drinking a "special occasion" activity, thus preserving social order and productivity.

As with so many awesome foods, we probably discovered alcohol by unwittingly consuming the waste product of some overachieving microbes. Who knows when that was, but by the time 10,000 b.c. rolled around we had already mastered the art of making beer. No doubt that's also when the brightest Neolithic minds started working on ways to soothe hangovers. Yet here we are in the 21st century, and still most of us turn to folk remedies to ease our pain.

Often it's an oddly specific food, like pickled things (herrings in Europe, plums in Japan, ceviche juice in South America). In Canada, there is poutine, which is really just gravy cheese fries, and here in the United States, there's raw eggs and hot sauce (aka prairie oysters), or some sort of animal protein/fat, often in the form of breakfast foods. There is the old standby of drinking water through the night, or sports drinks, coconut water, or even Pedialtye, all of which are good for combating the effects of dehydration--alcohol is a diuretic.

Then there are congeners, which are compounds in certain types of alcohol that seem to exacerbate hangoveredness. Sticking to clear, highly distilled or purified booze is key, since darker liquors seem to have more of them. This is why I started drinking gin, I think.

Chemical-based strategies include taking vitamin B or aspirin before going to bed, coffee in the morning, or the methadone of hangover treatments, "hair of the dog that bit you," which is just drinking more alcohol the next day. In years past, there were MaxAlerts, trucker pills containing pseudoephedrine that in addition to keeping you awake, seemed to prevent you from getting drunk, which is pretty pointless. Around here, the only OTC hangover cure of note is Chasers, which are just activated charcoal caps that are supposed to absorb toxins, but don't work at all for me. Even in Korea, where it's a huge industry, most products--if effective at all--still concede to getting hangovers in the first place.

So after millennia of human progress, the best we can do is patch, placebo, or behavior modification? No! According to Korean scientists In-hwan Baek, Byung-yo Lee, and Kwang-il Kwon, a vaccine of sorts has finally been found--oxygenated alcohol. So-called oxygenated water has been around for a while, sometimes promoted as enhancing athletic performance or curing all kinds of ailments. Liquids can accommodate varying amounts of dissolved oxygen given certain conditions. This is, after all, why aquariums have aerators. The question is: How much of that oxygen is usable when ingested as liquid, as opposed to "breathed" with gills? Apparently none when it comes to affecting physical activity via the bloodstream, but enough makes it into the liver to aid in the metabolic process. Their study concluded that alcohol containing about three times more dissolved oxygen than usual resulted in significantly quicker sobering up and fewer and less severe hangovers. I want to believe!

The beverage the scientists tested was O2 Linn soju. The breakthrough with O2 Linn's was in keeping the oxygen stable and dissolved over time--say in a bottle sitting on a shelf--since oxygen will eventually escape out of solution, like a soda going flat once opened. Tragically, oxygenated soju isn't available in the states, nor could my contacts in the motherland locate any before press time, so some MacGyverism was my only recourse.

The easiest way to dissolve oxygen into liquid is aeration that disturbs its surface. This led me to Tochterman's Tackle on Eastern Avenue, where they stock a deck-of-cards-size portable aerator for about $10. My totally non-scientific experiment consisted of me drinking the usual amount (not a little) of my usual stuff (gin), strained through ice into a separate glass and aerated for about 3 minutes.

One thing I noticed is a slightly softer taste. Buzz-wise, I did feel like I could think a bit more clearly even though my motor control and ability to enunciate continued on their usual downward spiral. The latter was very apparent as I had to explain why the hell I had a thing with tubes and bubbles in my drink no less than 20 times at whatever bar I was sitting at.

So what about the hangover? I must admit that, though not absent, it was noticeably less painful and debilitating than normal. I was still generally wobbly and out of sorts, but the pervasive all-over feeling of pain and not wanting to move, headache, and even bad mood, were simply absent. Total victory over hangovers, no, but certainly helpful.

If you're not willing to carry an aerator with you on your next pub crawl, keep these rules in mind: cold, clear, and agitated. While tiny bubbles like those produced by an aerator are best for O2 dissolution, one might presume that a shaken martini, for instance, would make for a lesser hangover than a stirred one.

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