Ep. 148: The One with Science In It

Martín Reyes, MW is back for a two-episode arc! We've got science, dad jokes, and questionable man-made sound effects on this one. Join us as Katherine and Martín dig in to how alcohol is metabolized in our bodies in part one of this two-parter.

​​[00:00:00] Martín Reyes, MW: Hey Katherine, what happens when you give five doses of Valium to a lizard? 

[00:00:08] Katherine Cole: I have no idea.

[00:00:10] Martín Reyes, MW: A calmer, calmer, calmer, calmer, calmer chameleon. 

[00:00:19] Katherine Cole: That’s my favorite Boy George song.

[00:00:21] Martín Reyes, MW: Is it really? Okay. That’s cool. You know, I’m actually surprised I can say that joke right now. Cause I’m kind of bummed. I just found my medicine cabinet has been tampered with.

[00:00:31] Katherine Cole: Oh no.

[00:00:32] Martín Reyes, MW: And now I realize my Prozac pills are all gone. 

[00:00:35] Katherine Cole: What?

[00:00:36] Martín Reyes, MW: Yeah. So to the thief who stole my antidepressants, I hope you’re happy. 

[00:00:45] Katherine Cole: I’m sure they’re very, very happy.

[00:00:46] Martín Reyes, MW: Hang on…my…hang on. These are, these are gone too. My, my placebo pills are also gone. 

[00:00:53] Katherine Cole: What?

[00:00:54] Martín Reyes, MW: Now I’ve lost all control.

[00:00:59] Katherine Cole: Well, that’s right, listeners. You just heard the sonorous voice of the one, the only, Martín Reyes, Master of Wine and slinger of dad jokes. And you know what that means. That means this is a special episode.

[00:01:20] Martín Reyes, MW: It is. That’s right. I’ve dropped in again. There I am. Here I go. Let’s do this, Katherine.

[00:01:25] Katherine Cole: So good to have you back, my friend. And as our listeners may know, these past few months, Martín Reyes, Master of Wine, stops in at The Four Top when we have wine and health on the agenda. So, Martín, let’s quickly review the conversations you and I have had recently. Let’s travel back through time.

[00:01:53] Martín Reyes, MW: I love your sound. Perfect. Who needs sound editors? Oh, you got Katherine. I can see the past. Yes. First, back in episode 130, you and I talked about the ingredients listing in wine labels and those, the prospect of those scary graphic health warning labels that…some of them are starting to show up, uh, on alcohol in, in certain parts of the world.

[00:02:16] Katherine Cole: That’s right. And then on episode 134, we discussed and debated the World Health Organization’s declaration that quote, “No amount of alcohol is safe for us to consume.” But instead of rehashing all of that, I would just throw out two words to counter that argument. And those two words, which you actually were the one who caught me onto this, Martín. Those two words are blue zones.

[00:02:39] Martín Reyes, MW: Damn straight KC and the Sunshine Band. Then we brought in, we brought in the experts in episode 142, the doctors, Laura Catena and Miles Hassels. We talked about the positive role that wine can have in, in human health and longevity. We also pointed out, well, they did, but everyone did. We piled on and, and, and talked about the striking fallacies in the World Health Organization’s argument.

[00:03:09] Katherine Cole: That’s right. And now here we are. So you, Martín, you’ve been saying for months that you want to just take an episode or maybe two episodes and talk about something that the wine industry, it’s like right in front of our faces, but we never talk about it.

[00:03:25] Martín Reyes, MW: Yeah, I’ve never had this conversation before. Like, what exactly happens when alcohol enters your body? How is it processed? Where does it go? I’ve alluded to how cool this can be now for several episodes for several months. But yes, I want to do that.

[00:03:39] Katherine Cole: Yes, you’ve sent me books about this and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone explain this. So how about you and I try and you know, this may not fit into one episode. This may take up two episodes and also folks a huge disclaimer here. Guess what? We’re not doctors. We are just a couple of curious people. We also happen to be curious people with an amazing producer Nick Toole who spent all week distilling scientific articles. Uh, I see that joke you put in there Martín.

[00:04:11] Martín Reyes, MW: Mm hmm.

[00:04:12] Katherine Cole: And I know, Martín, you have been also just guzzling scientific articles on this topic. So, thank you, Nick, for all your work behind the scenes. And Martín, anything you want to add to the disclaimer before we get started?

[00:04:28] Martín Reyes, MW: Okay. Disclaimer voice. Okay. Ready? All right. 

[00:04:31] Katherine Cole: Yep.

[00:04:32] Martín Reyes, MW: The Four Top is a podcast in which two wine experts sometimes talk about issues we know next to nothing about. These discussions about the body may not be suitable for everyone. Side effects may include fascination, uncontrollable urges to yell: “Aha!”, and existential discomfort. Do not take The Four Top if you’re experiencing an overly critical or skeptical state of mind. Brought to you by the world’s biggest Radiolab fan, me. 

[00:04:50] Katherine Cole: Very nice. All right. So like we said, we’re not doctors and we don’t even play doctors on TV, but I am a journalist or I guess I was at one point. So I’m going to lean into more of a guide role, you know, kind of like a Ms. Frizzle persona. If you remember magic school bus, let’s have some fluffy frizzly fun with this Martín.

[00:05:14] Martín Reyes, MW: Oh my gosh, the magic school bus. Let’s have fun with this discussion about our bodies. This journey that alcohol takes through our bodies. Down into microscopic like size, the magic school bus, like: “Seatbelts, everyone! Ride all the magic school bus!” I mean, this is fantastic. Let’s do it. Wait, does that make me the lizard? Am I the lizard?

[00:05:34] Katherine Cole: You’re not the lizard. maybe you’re the new science teacher, Mr. Reyes. 

[00:05:38] Martín Reyes, MW: Sure. Maybe Pablo, your puppy, can be the lizard, okay? Yes. So we’re going to take you, we’re going to shrink down to a very small size on the magic school bus, take you on a journey of discovery and explore what happens when alcohol enters our bodies.

[00:05:55] Katherine Cole: All aboard! 

[00:05:57] Martín Reyes, MW: Seatbelts, everyone.

[00:05:58] Katherine Cole: Okay, so first stop, before we even get to our bodies, Let’s consider alcohol. Let’s consider that molecule up close, it looks kind of like a Jeff Koons dog, you know, like a dog made out of balloons, like metal balloons. And as chemistry enthusiasts know, the shape of a molecule often matters quite a bit. So if it fits snugly into other molecules, like a jigsaw puzzle piece, that can affect the way that the molecules interact.

[00:06:36] Martín Reyes, MW: Yeah. Like a key or a door lock, right? So, in this case, the dog, the, the alcohol dog puppy, actually, maybe Pablo can be the alcohol molecule. So the dog snout nuzzles easily into a water molecule, and then the dog’s tail or it’s behind, it fits snugly into a fat molecule.

So that’s why alcohol is so soluble in our bodies. It’s right at home inside of us. It can roam freely, passing through our digestive tract and into bloodstreams, which is mostly water based. And then it could also pass through cell membranes, which are a lot of fat, right? So just remember that folks, that this is very, very soluble molecule. 

[00:07:19] Katherine Cole: Okay. I’m going to try to remember this. And before we move on, let’s also cover, you know, what is alcohol anyway? 

[00:07:25] Martín Reyes, MW: Yes. So it’s probably a good idea to review this. So like in a low oxygen setting, like a tank of grape juice about to be fermented, yeast, they chew through the sugars and they, they, they cleave it, they break it in half. Or they break it down, rather, into carbon dioxide and alcohol, and a little heat. And if you actually see all the chemical science, it, they add up neatly to that. That’s how the yeast live. They, they chew through, well, there’s many different kinds of alcohols, but you know, like even cholesterol is an alcohol if you think about it, but I digress. So, the alcohol then becomes a, it’s molecular waste after the yeast are done creating energy, not, not very efficiently through, eating through that glucose. Yeast don’t need it. In fact, too much becomes a toxin for them and it stops right around the 12 to 14 percent, of the, in the solution in which the yeast become dormant because there’s too much alcohol in the liquid. And then, haha, we’ve got wine.

[00:08:19] Katherine Cole: And those are those Jeff Koons puppy dogs.

[00:08:22] Martín Reyes, MW: Exactly.

[00:08:22] Katherine Cole: So We’ve got those alcohol molecules. So what happens when we take a sip and those alcohol molecules enter our face? Well, they hit, they hit the flavor, odor, and touch receptors. It’s a triple whammy because you can get that heat sensation in addition to the, the aromatics and the flavor.

And, you know, we could talk about that some other time. You also get that heat sensation as the tiny alcohol molecules pass through that fatty tongue tissue under your tongue, and stimulate the pain receptors under there in the same way that, you know, high temperature…the sensation of burning that we talk about with high alcohol. That’s real.

[00:09:01] Martín Reyes, MW: Yeah, it’s pretty cool that, it is a touch sensation too. Furthermore, as wine professionals know well, when we taste and when, and we spit, and we taste a lot of wine and spit a lot of wine, we still get a little bit, um, a little bit lightheaded because we seem to absorb a tiny bit of that alcohol, even if we don’t swallow it because of how soluble alcohol is.

[00:09:23] Katherine Cole: Yeah, it’s being absorbed by the tongue and the mucosal lining of the mouth. And Martín, I know both you and I have sat through those day-long marathon tastings in which you’re like, you’re spitting all day and yet by the end of the day, you’re just so lightheaded.

[00:09:37] Martín Reyes, MW: Yeah. Yeah. So that’s why, you know, some medications you can take, you know, under your, under your tongue, the tissue under the tongue are, are a pathway to the soul or actually to your bloodstream. Anyways, enough face time. Let’s move further south, shall we?

[00:09:55] Katherine Cole: That was a terrible Ms. Frizzle, terrible Ms. Frizzle sound effect that Nick put in there, okay. We’ve landed, we’ve landed in the stomach and I just grossed myself out with that plop. Anyway, what’s going on down here? What’s going on in the stomach, Martín? Oh God, no. Oh, it’s… 

[00:10:22] Martín Reyes, MW: We’ve landed in the stomach, squishy, squish, we’re here.

[00:10:27] Katherine Cole: Yeah. 

[00:10:28] Martín Reyes, MW: Have you just grossed yourself out? Okay. So, well, this is fun and we’re in this, you know, can you stomach this Katherine? Are you able to, well, okay. So alcohol’s experience in your stomach is affected by how crowded it is. So that’s why we know it’s imperative to eat before drinking. And there’s many theories about what you should eat before drinking, but what’s really more important is how much you eat. So when you eat and consume alcohol the pathway from your stomach to your small intestine closes up. I don’t know if people knew this, but there are sphincters in your body. One of the ones is, um, the one everyone can recall, but there’s also a pyloric sphincter, pyloric valve inside that connects your stomach to the small intestine. So it traps the food as it’s sort of, you know, digesting it. And then also in our case, alcohol in your stomach is also trapped so that, the alcohol, enters much slower in your bloodstream, in your stomach than it will in your small intestine. And that’s why the rate of, of your intoxication is dramatically slowed down If you have alcohol with food.

[00:11:44] Katherine Cole: And that’s not all. So alcohol actually does try to pass through your stomach lining like some sneaky escapee, but it is met at the door by a couple of bouncers. Now, these guys have long names, but we will keep coming back to them. We will keep coming back to these two characters. They are the enzymes. Alcohol dehydrogenase and…

[00:12:05] Martín Reyes, MW: Aldehyde dehydrogenase 

[00:12:07] Katherine Cole: Thank you. 

[00:12:09] Martín Reyes, MW: So for all you science nerds out there, yes, there’s many different types of alcohols and many types of aldehyde dehydrogenase, but for simplicity’s sake, we’re generalizing here. So if you want to get into more detail, that’s between you and Google. Okay. So let’s simplify the name Alcohol dehydrogenase, uh, you can say ADH. It’s an enzyme, it’s evolved with animals because, you know, it fruit has been fermenting on, on trees, uh, after a while I can get up to 4 percent alcohol. and also our gut bacteria also produces a small, tiny amount of ethanol.

[00:12:42] Katherine Cole: Mm

[00:12:42] Martín Reyes, MW: So this enzyme, these enzymes are part of animals’ evolution.


[00:12:49] Katherine Cole: Wait, can I stop you there? I think that’s really kind of stunning. That we evolved as species, and all animals evolved to be able to digest and consume and process alcohol. It is a natural part of how our body works.

[00:13:09] Martín Reyes, MW: I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way until you said it.

[00:13:11] Katherine Cole: That’s pretty amazing. I mean, I can’t think of another mind altering substance like that.

[00:13:17] Martín Reyes, MW: Yeah. So it is fascinating how nature does play a role in all of this for us. So the the alcohol dehydrogenase, ADH, the enzyme oxidizes, this is how it works, it oxidizes the ethanol into, turns it into acetaldehyde. By the way, oxidation, for chemistry 101, all that it means is simply when a molecule loses a Hydrogen atom that molecule becomes oxidized. So it’s fascinating to visualize what happens. This enzyme literally pops off a hydrogen atom from alcohol, actually a couple of them and that same molecule is now a different thing. It’s acetaldehyde. Okay. Say it with me.

[00:14:01] Katherine Cole: Acetaldehyde.

[00:14:02] Martín Reyes, MW: Acetaldehyde.

[00:14:03] Katherine Cole: Oh. Oh. Sorry. Emphasize the a.ss…

[00:14:07] Martín Reyes, MW: The ass. No, what? Hey, this is a, this is a family friendly program here. Come on. Don’t emphasize the ass…

[00:14:12] Katherine Cole: I’m just. All right. Well. You know, just like I say to myself every morning when I wake up, acetaldehyde. Anyway, acetaldehyde, it’s an organic compound that naturally occurs in fruit, bread, and coffee, but your body, it’s not a huge fan of it. Anyway, let’s get back to the stomach lining. So because your body doesn’t love that acetaldehyde, it keeps aldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme on hand to oxidize the acetaldehyde into acetate. Wow, that was a mouthful. So, bam. Another hydrogen atom neutralized. The dehydrogenase crew has given that ethanol the old one two punch before it can continue to the bloodstream and intoxicate you. So wait, can I stop? Can I stop you for a second, Martín? So what’s happening here is the body keeps sort of stopping alcohol in its tracks a little bit, right? It keeps kind of weakening it.

[00:15:09] Martín Reyes, MW: It’s a pathway to weakening alcohol that has naturally occurred with sugars, in the fruits and other substances. And then also a little tiny bit of alcohol in your, in your system. So yes, the body has a natural defense mechanism to break that shit down. So as effective as that dehydrogenase crew is, these enzymes do a one, two punch, pop, pop, pop. It isn’t perfect. And so some alcohol does get into your bloodstream through the stomach lining. We have two takeaways here, right? First is: Do not drink on an empty stomach. Okay. And two, no matter how you slice it up, the next stop on the school bus is the small intestine. Squish, squish, squish.

[00:15:53] Katherine Cole: All right, school bus is pulling up to the small intestine. What do we see here? 

[00:16:05] Martín Reyes, MW: Okay, yeah, so here we are. What a place. Wow, it’s, it’s, it’s oddly cozy in here. It’s kind of like being inside a pink shag carpet that’s all rolled up around you in our little magic school bus. Going through the magic school bus. Okay, this is where most of the action takes place. Right? So, most of the alcohol you consume makes it into the small intestine, where it has a very easy path to your bloodstream.

[00:16:29] Katherine Cole: Yes. And just to back up a little, that shag carpet look that you’re seeing, those pink tufts are actually gazillions of small, hair-like projections called a villi. And each of these is connected to a mesh of capillaries, which are designed to allow nutrients to pass into the bloodstream, which is, of course, great and allows us to get all those good nutrients from our food.

But those villi also allow ethanol to pass into your bloodstream as well, contributing to intoxication.

[00:16:55] Martín Reyes, MW: Let’s follow the ethanol into the bloodstream. Let’s take the water slide, splash to get in there.

[00:17:01] Katherine Cole: Okay, that’s kind of gross, because it’s our bloodstream that we’re talking about, but anyway. Ah, Martín, I’m so enjoying this conversation and I just want to keep going forever, but I’m feeling for our listeners. They’ve got other things to do. So how about we break this conversation into two episodes?

[00:17:20] Martín Reyes, MW: Yeah, let’s do that because I’m sure, like you said, the listeners want to maybe stop and grab a happy hour drink with their friends and listen to the next one the next time.

[00:17:30] Katherine Cole: Yeah, but of course they’re going to have a little something to eat with that drink so that their bodies can process that alcohol a little 

[00:17:37] Martín Reyes, MW: Exactly. Exactly. Yes. Artichoke dip and, um, and fried, uh, fried pickles.

[00:17:44] Katherine Cole: Mmm, that sounds so good. That actually reminds me that, you know, we do close out each episode with a dessert course. Do you have any dessert to share?

[00:17:52] Martín Reyes, MW: Motherfucker, I wasn’t ready for this.

[00:17:55] Katherine Cole: Leave it in! Leave it

[00:17:57] Martín Reyes, MW: Uh, uh, yeah, you know what, actually, I will tell you that…I want to, have I mentioned JOI yet? J O I.

[00:18:08] Katherine Cole: Hmmmm…

[00:18:09] Martín Reyes, MW: Uh, well, JOI is my newest, my newest stumbling upon trying to be a conscious and sustainably-minded consumer. And what this is, it’s plant based, plant milk bases rather, where it almost looks like a jar of almond butter or cashew butter, but it’s specifically designed to be thrown…one tablespoon into your, into your blender, along with a date, if you’d like, or nothing and just blend it up. And all of a sudden it’s your, you’ve got this ready made milk that you can, it’s frothable. It’s for you, whether your coffee or your cereal with the kids or whatever. It could replace up to, I think, six or seven plastic jugs of your otherwise grocery store almond or cashew or oat milk. And so it’s reduced. It’s just a small jar, a small glass jar replaces all of that plastic. And I’ve been using this for months. It’s pretty, pretty badass. And I like that. It’s called JOI. J O I.

[00:19:19] Katherine Cole: Oh, cool. That is so great. And you know, I buy the kind of almond milk where you have to peel the little plastic label off in order to recycle it, and it’s this whole thing, it’s this whole production. Oh, this is such a great idea. I love this.

[00:19:35] Martín Reyes, MW: Yes. Reduce your plastic. Just keep having that milk.

[00:19:38] Katherine Cole: Yeah. Concentrated nut milk.

[00:19:42] Martín Reyes, MW: That sounds kind of… 

[00:19:43] Katherine Cole: It sounded terrible. Leave it in.

[00:19:47] Martín Reyes, MW: Leave it in. All right. Talk about dessert. Anyway… 

[00:19:49] Katherine Cole: Well, on that note, this has been The Four Top podcast. I am our executive producer, Katherine Cole.

[00:19:56] Martín Reyes, MW: And I am the occasional co-host, Martín Reyes, or Martín Reyes, Maestro Vino, or Master of Wine.

[00:20:03] Katherine Cole: Nick Toole is our producer and a huge thank you to Nick for all the hard work he put into this episode, and Ruby Welkovich is our media and design manager.

[00:20:14] Martín Reyes, MW: Ah, being Ruby Welkovich…Kielen King is our sound supervisor and the composer and performer of our fantastic theme music. Please visit our website, thefourtop.org, to learn more about us, listen to back episodes, and learn how to sponsor our work.

[00:20:33] Katherine Cole: If you have not already subscribed to The Four Top on iTunes or Spotify, please do so and please, please, please leave us a rating.

[00:20:40] Martín Reyes, MW: And from the depths of your liver, chilling with the bouncers, the bouncer enzymes, this is Martín signing off. Goodbye.

[00:20:50] Katherine Cole: This is Katherine, signing off. Stay safe out there and thanks for listening.



Sources & Citations

Citations reference first appearance, without repeating for subsequent usage:

[00:02:24] The World Health Organization: No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health

[00:06:25] Duke University: The Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership

[00:06:36] Stephen Braun: Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine

[00:10:40] Duke University: The Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership

[00:12:01] Medical Hypotheses: Ethanol metabolism: The good, the bad, and the ugly

[00:12:09] Clinical Liver Disease: Alcohol Metabolism

[00:12:28] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS): Hominids adapted to metabolize ethanol long before human-directed fermentation

[00:13:49] Stephen Braun: Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine

[00:16:38] Duke University: The Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership