#3 The Hangover – What and Why?!

13 09 2010

Needless to say where the story behind this comes from, but I’m sure every University student can relate to having asked the question “Whyyy is this hapeningg to meee?” the morning after a heavy night out. Well here’s the answer.

Statistics show that 75% of us who drink enough have experienced a hangover at least once. In fact hangovers have been a part of civilisation for years, with reports dating back to Ancient Egypt and Greece, even the Old Testament. 

A hangover usually occurs 6-8 hours after alcohol intake, when the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches below 0. But the baffling thing is that its effects persist even after the alcohol has left the body. The state of the hangover itself depends on a variety of things, and I’m sure many of the following will sound very familiar to you:


The Symptoms

  • Dehydration – Commonly thought to be the main cause behind hangovers, dehydration has us reaching for pints of water throughout the night and morning after. It comes as no surprise that alcohol is a diuretic, which explains the insane number of toilet breaks whilst drinking. The alcohol inhibits the release of the anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), and prevents reabsorption of fluid. Along with the sweating, and in some cases vomiting, it’s no wonder we feel dehydrated.


  • Gastrointestinal disturbances – alcohol causes inflammation of the stomach lining known as gastritis. An increase in gastric acid and secretions from the gut can cause the uncomfortable upper abdominal pains, as well as the nausea and vomiting. There is also evidence of delayed emptying of the stomach (which I won’t go into detail on…).


  • Low blood sugar – hypoglycaemia can occur due to effects that alcohol has on our organs, including the liver. Glucose levels become low and exhausted because a build up of lactic acid inhibits glucose production. This is worse in individuals who fast or have a poor nutritional diet after the drunken night because glucose is the main source of food for the brain. Therefore it can lead to fatigue, weakness and mood disturbances.


  • Disruption of sleep – Many people think alcohol itself makes u drowsy, we’ve all seen (or been) those passed out after intoxication. But during hangovers, this is mostly due to disrupted sleep the night before, which interrupts our biological rhythms forming a sort of jet lag. Research shows that we spend more time in a drunken deep sleep and less time in the dream state. It can also relax our throats and cause an increase in snoring (uh-oh…).


  • Headaches – This is perhaps one of the most common symptoms and is due to vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels). This affects hormones and signals in your head, such as cytoquines which are signalling proteins that contribute to nausea, diarrhoea and tiredness. These little proteins are also linked to memory impairments, although the details of this are still unknown.


  • Memory Loss: Although many of us may not want to know what we got up to last night, memory loss only increases with more consumption of alcohol. This is because alcohol disrupts the ability of the hippocampus – a region of the brain that controls the formation of memories. The communication between these cells is altered so it is harder to coordinate a response.


The Baddies – why is alcohol so evil?

It is clear to see the toxic effects that alcohol has upon us, and this is mainly due to the metabolites produced when alcohol is broken down. At a high concentration these can cause nausea, sweating, skin flushing, a rapid pulse and vomiting. It is argued that these are broken down too rapidly for this, but the effects are so similar to the hangover that it is thought they must persist.

Another factor to take into account is the type of alcohol being consumed, and the ethanol content (known as the congeners). Purer alcohols like vodka and gin end to have less congeners and therefore result in less hangovers. The worst alcohols are those such as whiskey, brandy and red wine. In fact, if we delve deeper, methanol is actually the bad boy in this, as it is more toxic than ethanol and persists for several hours into a hangover.

We ourselves may also be to blame for the severity of our hangovers (I mean besides the reckless drinking activity). Negative life experiences and feelings of guilt are associated with more hangover experiences, similar to comfort eating. This happens to occur more in people with the potential to be alcoholics (i.e. if it is in the family), so you may want to think twice before you reach for that third (fourth, sixth, tenth…?) drink.


The Goodies – sugar, no spice and all things nice

Although the hangover is a relatively familiar concept to many of us, the science behind it is still hazy. Until this is known, specific treatments cannot be made. But research has pointed out a few antidotes in the following:

  • Fruits, fruit juices and fructose-containing foods can  lower the intensity of the hangover
  • Bland foods e.g. toast/crackers counteract the low blood sugar and relieve nausea
  • Non-alcoholic beverages can be used to reduce the alcohol-induced dehydration

There are also a few pills you can pop although these act on the symptoms and cannot cure the hangover itself:

  • Antacids for nausea and gastritis.
  • Ibuprofen to reduce headaches and muscle aches. These must be used cautiously if upper abdominal pains and nausea is also present as they are gastric irritants
  • Caffeine (hurrah!) to counteract fatigue and malaise. Although not scientifically proven, reports say it is quite effective
  • Drinking alcohol, known as the “hair of the dog that bit you” remedy. This reportedly cures a hangover but should really be avoided. Further alcohol may enhance the existing toxicity and increase likelihood of further drinking (and further hangovers!).