A graduate of the George Washington University Medical School Board, Dr. Sainsbury is certified in emergency medicine. He was a full-time emergency physician for 25 years, has lived on the Central Coast since 1990, and has written for many magazines. He currently has a house call practice here on the Central Coast and visits Africa yearly to help patients and student doctors there. Visit Dr. Sainsbury.com
The Business of Myth Busting
by Steve Sainsbury, MD
Destroying myths is risky business.
As I go about the thankless task of debunking some of our most cherished medical truisms, I must be prepared to evoke your disdain and lose all credibility with you.
Sitting in the comfort of your home, you are scrolling through one of my columns. The title, Medical Myth Busting, holds the possibility to be fairly informative and entertaining. But then you suddenly see one of your own sacred medical beliefs dashed to pieces. Without ceremony, you will toss me into the trash heap of quackery.
"He's crazy," you mutter.
"Everyone knows this is true!" you cry out, unable to restrain yourself. If your family is around, they will look up with alarm. Scanning rapidly through my column, my credibility with them sinks faster than O.J.'s efforts to find the true killer.
But wait. Examine what I say a little closer. You can easily document the veracity of what I write with a few simple keystrokes of research. I don't make this stuff up. Just because a lot of people believe something, doesn't make it true. For example, let's examine a myth that actually has dangerous implications if it is believed and followed.
Everyone knows that coffee will sober up a drunk. If your best friend has had too much to drink, just have him start guzzling cappuccino. The caffeine boost will wake him. Before too long, your buddy will be alert and sober enough to drive home. Right?
Go ahead. Force-feed strong coffee to your drunken friend. Add some pure caffeine with over-the-counter stimulants like Vivarin or No-Doze. Heck, you can throw in some meth-amphetamine (just kidding, folks—my schoolteacher spouse would call this is an example of hyperbole, or an exaggeration made to emphasize a point). No matter how much caffeine is ingested, your friend will remain intoxicated. He will be an awake drunk, but a drunk nonetheless.
Will his reflexes have improved? NO.
Will his blood alcohol level be lower? NO.
Will he be a safer driver? NO
He would have been less of a danger to himself and others if you had not awakened him with stimulants and simply let him sleep off his drunken state.
There is no drug or treatment that will hasten the sobering up of a person who is intoxicated. Trust me on this. As an emergency room physician, I have been forced, on a routine basis, to baby-sit a roomful of drunken college students. I have waited and waited for their blood alcohol levels to drop to where they can function safely. I, every bar and tavern in the country, not to mention judges, law enforcement officers, and all of my fellow ER doctors, would have paid big bucks to administer some drug that would sober them up quicker.
It is basic physiology. Alcohol is metabolized at a constant rate in our bodies. No amount of manipulation is going to change that.
"But wait!" you cry out. "Back in college, Bill got plastered at a frat party. He was so drunk he couldn't even stand up. We fed him the strongest coffee we could brew and he drove home like a champ."
Anecdotes like this one are often propped up as "proof" despite their limited scientific value. Bill's experience cannot serve as either proof of anything except that he was lucky.
Sorry, Frat Boy. (Forgive me. Sorry, beloved former fraternity member.) Bill was simply lucky. His blood alcohol level remained sky-high, totally unaffected by the coffee. Alcohol dramatically decreases reflexes and reason, two vital qualities for good driving skills. Neither skill is improved by coffee. He's lucky he didn't kill himself - or worse - some innocent mother of two young children.
Science-based, legitimate data comes from controlled experiments or studies. For example, to prove your belief, someone would have to line up several hundred frat-boys and get them drunk. (I suspect you would have thousands of free volunteers on any college campus for such a project). After reaching a pre-determined point of intoxication (asleep and snoring, fighting everyone around them, or vomiting on your shoes), their blood alcohol levels would be measured and levels of coordination, judgment, etc. would be documented. This is fairly straightforward testing, all easily accomplished within the scientific community. After force-feeding caffeine to your intoxicated subjects, the tests would then need to be repeated. Finally, you would need to compare the results, asking yourself the question, "Did coffee improve the drunken students in any measurable way?"
Many, many such studies have already been done. The votes have been cast. Coffee does NOT sober up a drunk.
And so it goes.
Mountain Gorilla image on banner by Steve Sainsbury.
This particular one is Steve's favorite gorilla, a friend from one of his stays in Rwanda.