What is a Hangover?

Hangovers are defined as severe headaches or the after effects that occur by drinking excess amounts of alcohol. The severity of a hangover can vastly vary from person to person. It can also vary depending on the age of the person and the types of alcohol consumed. Classic symptoms of a hangover can include: headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tiredness and dehydration.

According to an article published on drinkware.com, “Dealing with a Hangover,” the main cause of a hangover is ethanol. Ethanol is a powerful and toxic chemical that works in the body as a diuretic. Much like the use of lasiks and prescription diuretics, ethanol can cause increased urination, which in turn, can cause dehydration, believed to be the main culprit of those nasty hangover symptoms that we have to deal with the morning after partying. However, an article posted on Wired “Everything You Need to Know about Hangovers and How to Cure Them,” suggests that despite popular belief, scientists have found that the level of electrolytes are not significantly different between controls and people with hangovers. Even if scientists have spotted a difference, those differences didn’t seem to correspond with the severity of a hangover. This means dehydration is unlikely the cause of a hangover, but it may be the reason you experience the worst headache of your life.

“Alcohol Hangover, Mechanisms and Mediators,” written by Robert Swift, M.D., PH.D.; and Dena Davidson, PH.D, notes that one of the second most notorious symptoms of a hangover, nausea, is caused by two key factors: 1. The use of alcohol is known to irritate the lining of the stomach and intestines, by inducing an inflammation response in the lining of the stomach and the intestines, further causing a delayed emptying response of the stomach contents, which is likely responsible for nausea we experience. 2. The consumption of alcohol is also known to cause excess gastric acid production while increasing levels of intestinal and pancreatic secretions. This also contributes to the nausea feeling but is a contributing factor for acid reflux, heart burn and the indigestion.

The Smithsonian’s “Complete Guide to Hangovers and Why We Get Them,” goes on to explain that although scientists still don’t fully understand why we get hangovers, the most compelling theory to the causes of hangovers is the result of buildup of acetaldehyde, a toxic compound found within the body. It is highlighted that “As the body processes alcohol, acetaldehyde is the very first byproduct, and it’s estimated to be between 10 and 30 times as toxic as alcohol itself. In controlled studies, it’s been found to cause symptoms such as sweating, skin flushing, nausea and vomiting.”

Cytokines are also another interesting theory that may play a significant role in the cause of hangovers. This theory comes from a Korean study, (5) that concluded people with hangovers had high level of cytokines in their system, which is a response from the immune system itself. Cytokines are substances secreted by immune cells that are involved in inflammation and cellular communication. Cytokines are responsible for helping our bodies fight off infection. When high doses are injected into a healthy individual, interestingly enough, they began to experience an array of hangover-like symptoms. IFLscience.com adds, “Furthermore, some lines of evidence have hinted that abnormally high levels of cytokines could disrupt memory formation in the brain, which could help explain why many of us wake up totally oblivious of our late night shenanigans.”

Overall, there appear to be a number of causes for hangovers, and the dehydrating effects of alcohol seem to amplify some of these symptoms. While the only way to completely prevent a hangover is to limit alcohol consumption, we can be proactive and responsible by staying hydrated before, during and after consumption. By being careful about what we pair with alcohol, whether food, drinks, or activities, we can have more control over the effects alcohol has on our bodies the morning after partying.

  1. https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/hangovers/hangover-treatments-prevention/
  2. http://www.wired.com/2014/05/hangover-cure/
  3. Alcohol hangover, mechanisms and mediators (PDF.)
  4. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/your-complete-guide-to-the-science-of-hangovers-180948074/?no-ist
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14693266
  6. http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/why-do-we-get-hangovers/

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