The Science of a Hangover

Headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, upset stomach, drowsiness, sweating, thirst and decreased cognitive ability – these are a variety of the issues associated with a night spent partying too hard. Welcome to Sunday morning. This is a hangover.

It is often said that dehydration is responsible for a hangover. This is a simple and straightforward explanation that everyone jumps to. It seems logical enough! Alcohol is a diuretic, so it increases urine production. Meanwhile, those who are drinking heavily most likely are not minding their water consumption simultaneously. Still, multiple studies have shown that increased levels of the hormones associated with dehydration are not linked with hangover severity. What else could be the cause?

There is another theory that a hangover is the result of acetaldehyde buildup in the body. Acetaldehyde is a byproduct of alcohol processing in the body. It is between 10 and 30 times as toxic as alcohol, and it causes many of the symptoms associated with a hangover. Still, another theory exists that claims hangovers are linked with immune function. The presence of alcohol produces an inflammatory response in the body. Molecules that the immune system uses for signaling, known as cytokines, are found in high levels after drinking. Cytokines usually trigger an inflammatory response in order to fight an infection in the body, but if there is no infection present, they will simply lead to hangover symptoms.

As some of you have probably figured out, there is even a genetic component to a hangover. Specific gene mutations for the enzymes involved in converting alcohol to acetaldehyde and, later, acetic acid can lead to slower alcohol metabolism. The decreased metabolic rate can lead to a buildup of acetaldehyde (this is often referred to as “Asian glow”). If you suffer from a genetic predisposition to a hangover, feel free to blame Mom and Dad for your Sunday morning woes.

The type of alcohol you consume can also have an impact on your hangover. The greater the concentration of congeners, or fermentation byproducts, the more likely you are to suffer from hangover symptoms. These toxins are much more abundant in dark liquors such as bourbon, brandy, whiskey and tequila. They are also common in red wine. Different alcoholic drinks contain different types of congeners, so combing alcohols (and therefore various toxins) can also increase hangover severity. As the saying goes, “Beer before liquor, never been sicker.”

Photo courtesy of Pinterest

Photo courtesy of Pinterest

What about all those famous remedies that people throw around? Are the solutions real? Drinking the next morning is often suggested, but this will only put off the inevitable. In reality, the situation will only become worse because the liver is already processing a high level of alcohol metabolism toxins. Burnt toast is also just a myth. Though it seems that there is science to back this theory, the carbon of charred bread is not the same as activated charcoal (which is also meant to treat poisonings, not hangovers). Black coffee is another misleading rumor. Caffeine will simply dehydrate the drinker and make him more tired once the caffeine wears off. In Mediterranean cultures, people will even swallow a spoonful of olive oil before drinking alcohol.

Have no fear, there are some remedies that will help. Eggs contain a high amount of cysteine, which is responsible for breaking down the toxin acetaldehyde. Bananas will also help by replenishing a lost potassium supply. Water is important to help dilute leftover toxins in the stomach and fight dehydration. A final remedy would be fruit juice that has fructose to naturally increase energy and increase the rate at which toxins are expelled. Surprisingly, fatty food is actually a smart preventative measure. Fatty foods will slow down alcohol absorption by sticking to the stomach lining. So maybe try hitting late night before you go out!

In conclusion, there are several causes that can contribute to the presence and severity of a hangover. It is important that the individual is mindful of his or her own triggers and limits. Keep in mind what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to remedies. Have a good time, but beware of what the morning may bring. Most importantly, be responsible.

Hung Goose

Katie Carsky / Gavel Media

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