If Superman is the boy scout of DC Comics, then his goody-two-shoes counterpart in the Marvel universe is Captain America. Fitting in nicely with the squeaky clean stereotype of the soldier who fights for truth, justice and the American way, Steve Rogers exemplifies all of the ideals of the classic American hero. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t womanize. He fiercely believes in just one God, even though he happens to personally know two other gods from Norse mythology, and he has rippling abs and bulging biceps.
However, this clean cut image is not all a conscious decision. In the film Captain America: The First Avenger, he explains that he doesn’t drink only because he is being a good guy. Instead, he doesn’t drink because his body metabolism is so efficient in processing toxins that alcohol basically has no effect on him.
And that got me thinking… super soldier or not, this would suck for Steve Rogers at your average Fourth of July picnic. Could Captain America ever get drunk?
The Answer: Yes, but probably not on beer.
Although it seems simple enough, the physiological process of getting drunk is a fairly complex one. In chemistry, an alcohol is any chemical that has a functional hydroxyl group. There are many types of alcohol in organic chemistry, but only one has the effect that humans desire. It results from the ethanol molecule, which is a specific type of alcohol that has a specific effect on the human brain.
When a person drinks an alcoholic beverage, the relatively small amount of ethanol enters the blood stream through the lining of the stomach and the small intestine. When it reaches the brain, it will inhibit neurotransmitters in the brain, causing slurred speech and sluggishness. It will decrease the brain’s electrical activity but also increase the amount of dopamine, which results in a feeling of pleasure.
Alcohol is essentially a poison in the system which, in small doses, can have a pleasurable effect. However, the body will still treat it as a poison, which is detoxified in the liver. The average person’s liver can detox one ounce of alcohol every hour or so. If you drink faster than your body can process this alcohol, it will build up in your system, and the effects will increase.
Of course, if you drink too much and raise your blood alcohol content to 0.5%, you will suffer from alcohol poisoning and likely die.
So why doesn’t this work on Captain America?
The super soldier serum that was injected into Steve Rogers didn’t just give him amazing abs, let him grow a foot and a half taller, and increase his muscle mass exponentially. It also gave him amazing regenerative capabilities. His metabolism runs four times faster than the normal human, which allows him to recover quicker from injuries.
Assuming that his liver functions at a similar capacity, it allows him to process the alcohol that much faster than a normal human. His body will process the alcohol in a beer extremely quickly. When you consider that a pint of beer has less than an ounce of pure alcohol in it, he’d be able to process that in less than 15 minutes. With the human stomach capacity being less than a gallon, Rogers could only consume eight or ten beers in an hour, resulting in between 6 and 7 ounces of alcohol in his system. Maybe after a couple hours of drinking at capacity, he could feed alcohol into his system fast enough to get a slight buzz.
Not to mention breaking the seal. That’s a lot of time spent in the little super soldier’s room.
Of course, Captain America could always turn to high proof liquor, which would allow him to consume liters of pure alcohol at one time. After all, having a faster metabolism does not mean that you cannot get drunk. It just makes it harder.
Fellow Avenger the Hulk can be taken down with a flurry of tranquilizer darts. Similarly, Cap’s buddy from the comics (though compartmentalized to 20th Century Fox’s films) Wolverine has similar regenerative abilities, and that guy drinks like a fish. Maybe a night of drinking with Wolverine will show Captain American how to tie one on.
But that wouldn’t exactly be boy scout behavior, would it?
Choosing his poison
There may still be a way for Captain American to enjoy a night of drinking without looking like a wino at a street festival. This could be achieved by deliberately tricking his liver into detoxifying something else first.
The liver, like any body function, can only do so much at one time. When overworked by an alcoholic, the liver can become scarred and damaged, leading to permanent impairment. This causes problems because the liver does so much more than just get rid of alcohol. It aids in digestion, gets rid of old and damaged cells, breaks down proteins, stores carbohydrates, and produces bile and other chemicals.
However, the liver will prioritize its functions to what is most important at the time. This is why some diabetics are told not to drink alcohol because the liver will prioritize breaking down the alcohol over regulating carbohydrates, which can adversely effect blood glucose levels.
If Captain America really wanted to get drunk, he might consider ingesting another poison which would cause his liver to focus on getting rid of that first before attacking the alcohol in his system. Of course, his choice of poison would have to be carefully regulated so he doesn’t actually die, but it’s a possibility.
And it’s a good thing he knows a genius alcoholic scientist like Tony Stark and a brilliant doctor like Bruce Banner. It might be a bit of a struggle, but like the Beatles have suggested, Captain American could get high with a little help from his friends.