The Science Behind a Hangover
If you’ve ever had a night (or day) of too much drinking, the word you’re about to read will likely bring to mind some very unpleasant memories: hangover. The formal name is veisalgia, from the Norwegian word for “uneasiness following debauchery” (kveis) and the Greek word for “pain” (algia).
While the severity and number of symptoms vary from person to person, it's generally true that more alcohol consumed induces a worse hangover. The most common symptoms include headache, fatigue, and dehydration. People may also experience any one or combination of the following:
- Poor sense of well-being
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Loss of appetite
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
The average hangover lasts around 24 hours, but even after one has sobered, alcohol can continue causing trouble for the body. More than 75 percent of alcohol consumers have experienced a hangover at least once; 15 percent have one at least every month; 25 percent of college students feel symptoms weekly.
Once consumed, alcohol enters the bloodstream and causes the pituitary gland to block the creation of vasopressin. Without this hormone, the kidneys send water directly to the bladder instead of reabsorbing it into the body. This is why drinkers make frequent trips to the bathroom.
According to studies, drinking about 250 milliliters of an alcoholic beverage causes the body to expel 800 to 1,000 milliliters of water. That’s four times as much liquid lost as gained, thus raising one’s chances of dehydration.
The morning after heavy drinking, the body sends a desperate message to replenish its water supply, often in the form of a very dry mouth. Headaches result from dehydration because the body’s organs try to compensate for their water loss by stealing this liquid from the brain. In turn, the brain decreases in size, while membranes that connect it to the skull are pulled on. Dehydration can also bring on a sense of lightheadedness.
Frequent urination causes further problems by forcing the body to expel salts and potassium that are necessary for proper nerve and muscle function. When sodium and potassium levels get too low, headaches, fatigue, and nausea can settle in. Alcohol also breaks down the body’s store of glycogen and turns it into glucose that is eliminated in urine. Lack of this key energy source is largely responsible for weakness, fatigue, and lack of coordination the next morning.
Other effects of alcohol include the following:
- The immune system may react to alcohol with an inflammatory response, thus affecting appetite, concentration, and memory.
- Alcohol consumption raises the production of stomach acids while slowing the rate at which the organ empties itself. This combination can lead to nausea, vomiting or stomachache.
- When drinking, an individual’s blood sugar levels can fall steeply and result in shakiness, moodiness, tiredness, general weakness and even seizures.
While research on hangover cures is limited, and no single solution can fix all the symptoms, a few steps can help alleviate specific problems. The next time you hit the bottle too hard, remember to drink plenty of water. You should down 16 to 20 ounces before falling asleep, and the next time you go out, order a glass of water with every drink and alternate between the two to replace lost fluids as you go.
Toast is a well-known comfort food, and it can even help remedy your hangover symptoms. In fact, carbs in general can bring blood sugar levels back up following a night of partying. Normally, when blood sugar levels dip, the liver responds by producing more glucose from stored carbs. But if you’ve been drinking too much, the liver is busy metabolizing alcohol and can’t handle more work. This means blood sugar levels stay down, likely causing you to feel irritable and tired.
And finally, you can ease your headache with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, ibuprofe,n and naproxen. But stay away from acetaminophen (Tylenol), which can cause organ damage or even death when combined with a liver already working overtime.
If, after all this, you’re still looking for a hangover remedy, abstain from alcohol altogether. It’s the best preventive measure out there.