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You can’t get drunk soaking your feet in vodka (and other festive findings from the British Medical Journal)

I thought I’d end Second Opinion this year with descriptions of some of the oddball scientific studies that made it into this year’s “Christmas” issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Such studies are a cherished annual tradition at the BMJ. They are, in fact, “real” scientific papers “that went through our usual peer-review process,” a BMJ spokesperson told reporter John Gever of MedPage Today. “They use proper research methods and have to stand up scientifically. It’s the subject matter that is quirky and fun.”

And quirky and fun they are. Here are three of my favorites (warning: British spellings and punctuation):

Can you get drunk through your feet?

Apparently, it’s an urban myth in Denmark that you can get drunk by standing in alcohol. Three Danish doctors bravely decided to test this bit of folklore by submerging their feet in a bowl containing the contents of three bottles of cheap vodka (37.5 percent alcohol by volume). They measured their blood-alcohol levels every 30 minutes for three hours (or, rather, they had a nurse do it). During the experiment, the doctors also recorded, on a scale of 0 to 10, any symptoms that might be related to intoxication, such as “self-confidence, urge to speak, and number of spontaneous hugs.”

Blood-alcohol levels showed no change. Furthermore, although the doctors’ self-confidence and urge to speak ebbed and flowed during the experiment, there were no reports of spontaneous hugs. “As the implications of the study are many, we will mention a few,” write the study’s authors. “Driving or leading a vessel with boots full of vodka seems to be safe. Brewer workers cannot become intoxicated by ‘falling’ into a brewer vat. Importantly, students experimenting with transcutaneous alcohol absorption should move on to more relevant activities.”

What’s better for digesting fondue: alcohol or tea?

From this study, one is left to conclude that people in Switzerland spend considerable time debating whether cheese fondue should be consumed with white wine or with black tea. The Swiss also can’t agree, apparently, on whether taking a shot of “spirits” after the meal aids the fondue’s passage through the digestive system or, instead, increases the likelihood of post-meal bloating and belching.

A team of researchers at the University Hospital of Zurich persuaded 20 volunteers to test these contesting traditions. After fasting for at least six hours, the volunteers ate 200 grams of fondue washed down with either white wine (Fendant de Valais, of course) or black tea. Ninety minutes later, they were given either a cherry liqueur (schnapps) or water.

The study found that digestion was slower when the fondue was consumed with alcohol rather than black tea. But the alcohol — including the added schnapps — did not increase symptoms of heartburn, belching or bloating.

Their findings led the authors to suggest (tongue firmly in cheek) that another Swiss custom may be the cause of any post-fondue digestive distress: “Those familiar with local customs, perhaps having read the classic reference Asterix in Switzerland, will know that there can be punishments for fondue eaters who lose their bread in the cheese, ranging from an extra shot of schnapps to being thrown into a freezing lake. This kind of psychosocial stress is likely to affect gastric function and could trigger dyspeptic symptoms.”

Yes, I do believe it could.

Can a carbon-frame bicycle get you to work faster than a steel-frame one?

This “single centre, randomised, non-blinded trial” involved a sole (n=1) participant: the study’s author, Dr. Jeremy Groves, a British physician.

Groves purchased a $1,500 carbon-frame bicycle (weight: 20.9 pounds) as part of the U.K. government’s “Cycle to Work” scheme, which provides significant tax incentives to individuals who buy a bike to commute to work.He already was commuting on a old steel-frame bike (weight: 29.75 pounds), but had been persuaded by friends and advertising that the lighter bike would provide a swifter and more enjoyable ride.

He wasn’t convinced the new bike was faster, however. So he set up a six-month experiment. Whenever he decided to bike rather than drive the 27-mile commute from his home in Sheffield to his work in Chesterfield, he tossed a £1 coin to randomly select which of the two bikes to use. He then timed and recorded each trip. He ended up riding the steel-frame bike 30 times (two trips were excluded because of tire punctures) and the carbon-frame bike 26 times (one trip was excluded “after an offer of a lift home with a colleague”).

Groves found no measurable difference in commuting time. In fact, his fastest round-trip commute (1:37:40) was on the steel bike “as a direct result of chasing one of my fitter cycling colleagues to work.” Groves speculates in his study on why the lighter bike didn’t shorten his commuting time: “Though a 30% reduction in bicycle weight may seem large,” he writes, “the reduction in total weight (bicycle + rider) of 4% is much less impressive.”

“Given these findings, why then do so many of us by ‘performance’ bicycles?” he asks. “Many of us respond to ‘new’ pharmaceuticals in a similar way to how cyclists respond to ‘new’ bicycles. The industry invests significantly in marketing products of marginal benefit and we, as medical consumers, frequently buy into the panacea rather than objectively considering the evidence. We must excuse consumerism, particularly at this time of year, because without it our capitalist society would collapse.”

Groves should also get credit for coining a new acronym for a population group: MAMILs (middle-aged men in lycra).

Have a happy and healthy New Year!

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 12/31/2010 - 11:40 am.

    “You can’t get drunk soaking your feet in vodka …”

    Dear Susan:

    This brings to mind Roger Miller’s old song, “Ye Cain’t Go Roller Skating In a Buffalo Herd.”

    Happy New Year!

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