"Just One Drink"
She came into my office so low you could watch the grief in her legs. Each footstep was slow, the heels twisting down as they reached the carpet. She tried to sit down and cried, tried to speak and sobbed again.
Her perfect son, a professional athlete, had swerved his car into a concrete culvert at 2:30 in the morning.
Everything in his life was going "superbly" well. He was extremely happy, his wedding set in three weeks. His career was finally achieving the success he had labored for since childhood. That night he worked, then went to the bar with close friends. Every one told her he had not drunk until before he hit the road. One drink.
"What time did he drink it?"
She hesitated. "Around 2 A.M."
"Did you know that many of alcohol's effects are 2-3 times at midnight what they are 6 PM?"
She didn't understand what I said.
"They increase more later in the night. You said he had just one drink?"
"All his friends said the same - just one drink."
I explained. Even a little alcohol that late had likely killed him. Over the years I saw several more parents with virtually the same story.
Time Rules Life
Tell Americans that body clocks powerfully change the effect of every drug, drink and food they ingest and they can't wrap their heads around that fact. It's like saying that when you play basketball at midnight the ball is suddenly two and a half times bigger than when you shot hoops at 6 PM.
The reason is simple - we're built that way. Night and day are designed into the DNA of virtually every organism on this earth.
Your body is built and operates on time. The worst mistakes at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island came around 4 AM, when people are meant to be asleep and human performance hits bottom. The National Transportation Safety Board had to change trucker's rules when they realized drivers had over 40 times the fatality rate when driving between midnight and 6 AM. Americans also can't believe heart attack rates go up as much as 5 times Monday morning, as Steven Shea and his group at Harvard have shown, after blowing out their clocks with late weekend hours.
People who sleep less grow bigger, say more than a dozen international studies. Eating at night leads to greater weight gain and higher lipid levels, as shown this year by the group at the University of Surrey. Ask any shift worker what happens to their waistline.
Even doctors don't understand the effects of body clocks. They often don't tell people to talk their aspirin at night, when the GI side effects are half what they are during the day. American oncologists unlike many European specialists still fail to recognize that many tumor cells grow faster at night (as do many of your skin cells.) Hit the tumors with chemotherapy at night and you increase effectiveness and lower side effects - you save lives.
When it comes to time, nothing stays the same.
Alcohol Effects During the Night and Day
Timothy Roehrs and Tom Roth at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit have been studying alcohol effects for decades. Night-time booze doesn't just change your ability to move and think it last longer in you, and sleep loss changes the equation, too. Sleep five hours the night before, as do many teenagers and twentysomethings cradling their cell phones in bed, and alcohol's late evening effects double.
Alcohol is also an astonishingly popular sleeping pill, with one Gallup poll declaring 5% of the population using it to fall asleep. Little do people know alcohol will wake them 15-25 times more times each night.
It's all part of the "Up-Down Trap," where the American sleep style of "lie down and die" runs smack against reality.
People need on average 7-8 hours sleep to get much of the body regeneration sleep provides. Many working women, with kids, extra jobs, and elderly parents, are getting 6.5 hours or less.
So that sleep has to be perfect. Alcohol, sometimes plus a sleeping pill, makes for "instant" sleep. Yet the sleep interruptions caused by alcohol interfere with deep and REM sleep, needed for brain cell growth, learning, and memory.
And the fatigue of interrupted sleep is often counteracted the next day by increasing amounts of coffee or tea - whose effects also change with time of day, including lightening sleep the next night.
The endless cycle of depressant-stimulant thus begins. No wonder shiftworkers, like rock performers and musicians, frequently add alcohol for sleep with cocaine to maintain their work schedules. Next thing we know, Lady Gaga tells her fans not to do what she does.
Timing Alcohol for Health
According to the epidemiologic research of Richard Peto and others, alcohol can cut the risk of heart disease (though not necessarily overall death rates.) Like any other drug, the dose and timing need to be right - one drink per day for females, perhaps one to two for males.
And that drink should be in the evening, when the negative effects of alcohol are minimized and the social pleasure high. Food is both celebration and information, as necessary for survival as sleep.
And making life rhythmic has many compensations, including easier weight loss. We love music for a reason - because music is in our genes. We adore music partly because so much of our lives is rhythmic - controlling how cells communicate, how we speak, make love.
And the effects of what we drink.