The Scientist: Susan Mosher Ruiz, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the Laboratory of Neuropsychology at the Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System
The Answer: All alcoholic beverages contain the same intoxicating ingredient: ethanol. Whether it’s beer, wine or liquor, the alcohol is molecularly identical and affects your brain the same way. Tequila is distilled from sugars of the agave plant. The distillation process gives it a different makeup of congeners (by-products from fermentation/distillation) than other alcohols. But these congeners really only affect the alcohol’s taste; they have no substantial effect on how your body and brain react to the booze. So there’s no secret ingredient in tequila that makes you feel rowdy, but rather the context in which you’re drinking it is probably to blame.
Ethanol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it has calming and sleep-inducing effects. But these effects are also dependent on how much you consume and the situation you’re in — sometimes, and in smaller doses, it can have euphoric effects. In our culture, tequila has made a name for itself in the spring break, frat party scenes (both associated heavily with binge drinking). Thanks to these typically tequila-drenched settings, the drink has earned a reputation for making any night a bit more wild. Plus, tequila is generally consumed via shots — and whenever shots are involved, it’s bound to be a crazy night. If you’re mixing it, it’s probably with a super sugary juice or mix, spiking your glucose levels and further altering your mood. (There’s a reason little kids shouldn’t have sugar before bed.)
On the flipside, wine probably makes you tired, right? That’s probably because you’re sipping on it in a calm, relaxing setting, maybe with your in-laws or a colleague, so your body and brain give in to the alcohol’s calming effects instead. The different cultural expectations we have for this type of alcohol over tequila sets you up to experience it quite differently.
However, it’s also important to note that tequila is generally 40% ethanol, whereas wine is around 12% and beer about 5%. So you need to drink way less tequila to get the same blood alcohol concentration than you would drinking wine or beer. BAC also increases quicker when you drink faster. So taking tequila shots gets you drunker faster, and once you’re intoxicated, your ability to say no and understand your limit decreases drastically. Which is why you probably take another shot, and then another, and then find yourself making a night’s worth of bad decisions. Damn you, tequila.
If you want to indulge on tequila without having “one of those nights,” you can do a few things. Stick with quality tequila distilled from 100% agave, and sip it (alone or with a mixer) instead of pounding shots. And just remember: Alcohol is a drug, and as with all drugs, the setting you’re taking it in, and your mood and mindset, change your experience. If you believe it’s going to make you more wasted, you’ll probably end up getting more wasted. And if you go into it deciding it’s going to be a tequila kind of night, because your intention is to get super drunk, well, you’re probably in for a wild time (and a killer hangover the next morning).
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