Writing for Gizmodo, a blog known for its coverage of cutting-edge technology, Brent Rose examines the possible effect altitude may have on the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Rose notes people in Denver repeatedly warn outsiders to be careful when they drink, adding that claims have been made suggesting an elevated altitude renders an alcoholic beverage up to three times as potent.
Rose claims that if you visit the Denver area to ski this winter, city officials will warn you about it when you get to town. Some speculate that when alcohol is present in the blood, it interferes with hemoglobin’s absorption of oxygen.
And Rose adds that because higher altitudes have less oxygen in the air to begin with, it is thought that the effect is magnified, so you get even less oxygen to your brain. People are advised not to drink for roughly 48 hours after they arrive at a higher altitude.
In his article, Rose questions the validity of these claims, and comments that if they were true, “everyone would be affected by it, whether they were acclimated to the elevation or not.”
After having spent three years of his life in Denver, Rose concludes some who drank were mildly affected by a higher altitude, and some weren’t affected at all. Other people are just drunks at any elevation, he quipped.
Rose cites an Austrian study from 20 years ago that found no significant difference in the blood-alcohol content (BAC) of people drinking at sea level and those at 10,000 feet.
Researchers did conclude alcohol inhibits the initial stages of adaptation to oxygen deficiency at moderate altitudes, and they suggest using caution when consuming alcohol at moderate altitudes.
Rose argues that while the altitude isn’t actually causing your BAC to go any higher, you may feel more intoxicated because you’re experiencing altitude sickness.
To cope with this situation, Rose suggests waiting 48 hours after you reach a higher elevation before drinking.
But a study of several thousand visitors to Rocky Mountain resorts found that adults who drank within the first 24 hours of arriving actually had lower rates of acute mountain sickness.
And according to Focus Magazine (Science and Technology), Brent Rose’s Denver story is a widely held urban myth.
“Numerous studies have shown that altitude has no effect on your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Both high altitude and alcohol does impair your mental performance, but the two do not become especially potent when combined.”
The Denver myth probably stemmed, in part, from the 1930s study conducted by R.A. McFarland, a Columbia University psychologist, who began studying the interaction of altitude and alcohol to figure out what effects drinking might have on pilots.
After years of research, he concluded “the alcohol in two or three cocktails would have the physiological action of four or five drinks at altitudes of approximately 10,000 to 12,000 ft.” But later research doesn’t support McFarland’s claim.
According to DUI defense lawyers at Cowan, Kirk & Gaston Law Firm, the Federal Aviation Administration conducted a series of experiments in which they observed inebriated individuals at higher altitudes and below sea level. They concluded that there is no correlation between elevation and alcohol potency.
“Drinking at high altitudes does, however, exaggerate and enhance the dehydration many feel when they increase their elevation. This can affect one’s physical and cognitive well-being, which may cause him or her to be unable to safely operate a vehicle.”
So does altitude affect the potency of alcohol? NO.