The (Simply Explained) Science Behind Hangovers

Some controversies may forever divide our nation: political party preferences, tax rates, how much time kids should spend surfing the web, and the proper pronunciation of “GIF.” (Come on, people, it’s not peanut butter! Ahem.)

But, oh yes, there is one thing we can all agree on: hangovers are the worst.

Photo: Xavier Sotomayor for Unsplash

If you’ve ever enjoyed a wild night out, you’re probably well aware of the side effects: an unfortunate cocktail of grogginess, muscle aches, tremors, digestive issues, and a Grim Reaper-esque demeanor. All of these symptoms—which set in after blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels off—are fist-shaking proof that no good (or pleasurable) deed goes unpunished.

Hangovers can be costly for society, too. So far, they have been linked to diminished productivity, absenteeism, and accidents in work and academic settings. In fact, a 2006 survey revealed that the costs of hangovers outweighed those of drinking on the job.

At this point, you might be wondering how all of this physical discomfort springs up. Take a dive into the science behind hangovers—and what you can do to lessen their grip on your life.

Dehydration

Dehydration is the most commonly-cited explanation for hangovers. Once alcohol seeps into the bloodstream, it blocks the production of vasopressin, a hormone that signals the kidneys to reabsorb water rather than expelling it through the bladder. By inducing your body to release about four times as much liquid as it gains, alcohol unlocks unseemly symptoms like dizziness, sweating, splitting headaches, and a cottony mouth.

To top it off, alcohol-induced dehydration and related issues—such as sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea—cause the body to expel electrolytes like sodium and potassium, both of which are crucial for proper nerve and muscle functioning. So unless you’re drinking double-fisted, be on the lookout for endless trips to the porcelain throne—and overwhelming malaise—next time you get wasted.

Acetaldehyde

Grave regrets aren’t all that make booze harmful. Soon after alcohol is ingested, the liver breaks it down into a molecule called acetaldehyde—which is 10 to 30 times more hazardous—before swiftly converting it into a harmless end-product resembling vinegar. Usually, this process is quick and easy enough for acetaldehyde not to pose a threat—except when copious amounts of alcohol drain your body’s supply of metabolic enzymes, causing the toxin to build up.

An unlucky few are especially susceptible to acetaldehyde accumulation, which welcomes hazardous hangover symptoms like sweating, skin flushing, nausea, and vomiting. For example, people of Eastern Asian descent commonly suffer from genetic mutations that speed the production—and/or slow the elimination—of acetaldehyde. Women are also thought to have fewer alcohol-processing enzymes than men and, consequently, experience more painful and drawn-out hangovers.

Congeners

Unlike acetaldehyde, congeners aren’t associated with the digestion of alcohol. In fact, they aren’t even related to the alcohol content of drinks! Actually, congeners are byproducts of fermentation that give some spirits their unique flavor and color. Like acetaldehyde, however, congeners are highly toxic—and have been shown to amplify the severity of hangovers. Luckily, you can pick your poison when it comes to congeners. Just keep in mind that “darker” drinks, like red wine, bourbon, brandy, and tequila, contain more of the stuff than “clear” drinks, like white wine, vodka, rum, and gin.

Sleep Problems

Before you head off to catch some Z’s, consider swapping alcohol for a warm glass of milk as a nightcap. As it turns out, alcohol throws your sleep cycle out of whack by causing you to spend too much time in deep (or “slow-wave”) sleep and not enough in the restorative dreaming (or “rapid eye movement”) phase. In other words, booze might help you hit the hay, but it’ll also sabotage your sleep cycle down the road—leaving you feeling bleary-eyed and hazy by morning.

There’s a simple explanation for this sneaky trend. Once inside the brain, alcohol makes you sleepy by dulling the effects of glutamate, a natural stimulant. At first, that’s all well and good: the brain simply ups the number of glutamate receptors on cells to compensate for these sedative effects. But as alcohol gets cleared throughout the night, your brain’s coping strategy remains intact—it becomes more responsive than ever to glutamate’s excitatory effects. Not the best recipe for shut-eye.

Sneaky Molecular Messengers

Another set of curious—albeit mysterious—hangover culprits are molecular messengers that wreak havoc on your system with their mind-boggling effects. One one hand, alcohol stimulates a host of hormones and neurotransmitters known to cause headaches, such as histamines, prostaglandins, and serotonin. What’s more, alcohol may provoke the release of cytokines—or immune system signalling molecules—that intensify hangover symptoms like muscle aches, fatigue, and memory loss.

Upset Stomach

One of the most dreadful hangover symptoms is, hands down, violent nausea—especially when it gives way to bucketfuls of puke. First come wracking chills; then, a rocking and tipping sensation, like sailing across a stormy sea on a flimsy canoe; and finally, a tummy ache that takes a sour turn when you least expect it. What’s the deal with that?

Unsurprisingly, copious amounts of alcohol irritate the delicate lining of the stomach and intestines, causing them to mount a punishing revolt. After you drink, the digestive system churns out gastric, pancreatic, and intestinal secretions—all of which can color your cheeks green—and sometimes relays an emergency signal to rid itself of toxic chemicals. Then, of course, one thing leads to another. On the bright side, it’s unlikely you’ll hurl unless you drink high volumes and concentrations of alcohol (think 15% alcohol content or higher).

Conclusion

Do any of these symptoms sound familiar after a night at the pub? If so, don’t be alarmed—there are ways to prevent them, such as choosing “lighter” drinks, making sure not to imbibe a few hours before bed, and downing plenty of water during the evening. Also, take a look at a few other posts by Ria Health on reducing hangover symptoms, found here and here.

When age-old hangover remedies aren’t doing the trick, you could always try a new approach: managing your drinking. Ria Health helps its members combat hangovers by identifying common triggers, helping to create strategies for nights at the bar, providing suggestions, and more. If you’re tired of insufferable discomfort and lost days at work, give our team a shout-out.

Kimberly Nielsen writes about health issues, and has written for various scientific newspapers and blogs. She is currently studying biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and plans to pursue a graduate degree in Public Health.

References

[1] https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/54-60.pdf

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18182417

[3] https://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/drugs-alcohol/hangover2.htm

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19347842

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3096805/

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