What’s the truth about alcohol? Does food help absorb alcohol? Does it really kill brain cells? Or does it protect your body against a multitude of diseases, like heart disease?

One of the key factors that helps us process and breakdown alcohol after it enters the body is the production of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. A lot of why your body does or doesn’t do a good job in breaking alcohol down and sobering you up has to do with the production (or lack thereof) of this important enzyme.

This enzyme works better in younger men than in either women of all ages, or older men. Why, we don’t know, but it seems to stop working as effectively in men ages 55 and older, bringing them closer to women in their alcohol breaking-down ability.

LifeHacker recently published an article that helps to separate out more alcohol fact from fiction, and explaining how it all works. Excerpts below…

A full stomach helps break down alcohol, but not because your food “soaks up” the alcohol. When you eat a big meal, your stomach’s pyloric sphincter, a kind of release valve into the small intestine, closes tightly. Your body knows that you’ve got food that should get a good going-over in your stomach before it heads straight to the high-absorption small intestine, so it keeps it there, and the AD in your stomach has more time to work on the alcohol. Drink on an empty stomach, and the liquid quickly makes it into the small intestine, where there’s more than 200 square meters of surface area for absorption into your body. Image via peretzpup.

Another big factor in alcohol absorption, and alcohol’s effects, is genetics. Your great-great-grandparents have a say in how buzzed your Friday night gets, for sure, but for roughly one-third to half of Asian drinkers, it’s more than a slight variance. Alcohol flush reaction, a flushing of the face when drinking, occurs because the enzyme “clean-up crew,” aldehyde dehydrogenase, is mutated by just one amino acid. That changes how effective its molecules are in bonding with, and busting up, acetaldehyde. With excess acetaldehyde in their system, those with a flush reaction get red-faced, and can experience heart palpitations, dizziness, and severe nausea in extreme cases. Your own genetic makeup of AD and aldehyde dehydrogenase affect your ability to break down alcohol and its byproducts in similar fashion.

Don’t take aspirin before drinking, unless you love hangovers. Aspirin seriously cuts the effectiveness of your body’s AD enzymes. In one 1990 study, the average blood alcohol levels of those who took two maximum strength aspirin tablets before drinking were an average of 26 percent higher than those who were aspirin-free. Other studies have suggested even more impact on your body’s ability to break down alcohol. That also means more acetaldehyde in your system down the line, so you’ll learn your lesson quickly if you’re considering aspirin as a “helper.”

Want to learn more about how alcohol (sort of) extends your life, doesn’t really kill brains cells (but does inhibit both them and your sex drive), and makes other people’s behaviors seem more intentional than they really are, check out the full article: What Alcohol Actually Does to Your Brain and Body.