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Health Answers

Is vodka better for you than other alcoholic beverages?

By Judy Foreman
December 29, 2008
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No, although it is less likely to give you headaches and hangovers.

Alcoholic beverages are divided into three categories: beers, wines, and spirits. Beer and wine are made by fermentation of plant material that contains sugar or starch, while spirits (vodka, gin, scotch, etc.) are made by fermentation followed by distillation, that is, boiling, followed by condensation. Beer is typically 4 percent to 6 percent alcohol by volume; wine, 9 percent to 16 percent; and spirits, at least 20 percent. (Spirits that are 20 percent alcohol are said to be 40 "proof.")

The reason for headaches and hangovers are toxic chemicals formed during fermentation called congeners, says Samir Zakhari, director of the Division of Metabolism and Health Effects at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Because vodka has fewer congeners than most other alcoholic drinks, it is less likely to cause hangovers.

That said, the alcohol in vodka is metabolized the same way as alcohol in any other drink.

When a person drinks alcohol, the alcohol gets processed in the liver by two enzymes.

The first, alcohol dehydrogenase, breaks alcohol down to acetaldehyde, a nasty substance that in most people is rapidly broken down by a second enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase.

The result is acetic acid, or vinegar.

Some ethnic groups, including some Asians, have common genetic mutations that make the second enzyme ineffective, leaving the drinker to suffer the unpleasant effects of acetaldehyde such as nausea and rapid heartbeat.

Even though vodka has fewer congeners than other forms of alcohol, warns Dr. Emanuel Rubin, a professor of pathology at Thomas Jefferson University, that doesn't mean you can drink all you want and never get hung over. Nor does it mean that vodka drinkers avoid becoming alcoholics.

"The major effect by far is the amount of alcohol you drink," not what kind, he says.

E-mail health questions to foreman@globe.com.

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