The Anatomy of a Hangover
For the majority of college students, a hangover is a monthly, if not weekly occurrence. Most of us know that if a person drinks too much, they will more than likely end up with a hangover; however, few know exactly what causes the unwanted symptoms of a hangover. The most common symptoms include headaches, fatigue and dehydration, and generally, the more alcohol a drinker consumes, the worse the hangover will be. In addition to quantity of alcohol, lack of sleep, dehydration before drinking, increased physical activity while drinking, poor health, and drinking on an empty stomach can increase the effects of a hangover. The reasons for some hangover symptoms are not fully understood, but through research, scientists have a fairly good understanding of the mechanics of hangovers.
When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it causes the pituitary gland to stop the creation of vasopressin. When this occurs, the drinker’s kidneys send liquid directly to the bladder instead of absorbing it into the body. This is why drinkers find themselves using the restroom multiple times during a night of drinking. In addition, studies have shown that drinking about 250 milliliters of alcohol causes the body to expel nearly four times as much liquid in waste. The aftereffects of this diuretic effect help create a hangover.
To replace this lost liquid, the body will send a message – usually in the form of dry mouth. Headaches associated with hangovers are the result of this dehydration. The body’s organs will attempt to replenish their own water, usually by stealing water from the brain, which causes it to decrease in size and pull on the membranes which connect it to the skull, which in turn results in a headache.
In addition to the liquid expelled during frequent urination, certain salts and potassium – required for proper nerve and muscle function – are also lost.
Alcohol turns the body’s supply of glycogen into glucose, and sends it out of the body in the urine. Lack of this energy source is a key part in the feeling of weakness, fatigue, and lack of coordination the next morning.
Different types of alcohol will cause different hangover symptoms to manifest. Drinks with higher concentrations of congeners will generally result in more pronounced symptoms. Red wines and dark liquors such as bourbon, brandy, whiskey, and tequila contain the greatest amounts of these toxins, while white wines and clear liquors such as rum, vodka, and gin will have fewer congeners, and consequently, will cause less frequent and less severe hangovers. Because beer, wine, and liquor all contain different amounts of congeners, combining drinks can result in more severe hangovers. The carbonation in beer will also speed up the absorption of alcohol, so following beer with a liquor drink will give the body even less time than usual to process the alcohol, hence the saying: “Beer before liquor, never sicker”.
When alcohol is broken down in the liver, the product is acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is more toxic than alcohol itself, so it is quickly attacked by another enzyme, known as acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, and a substance called glutathione, which contains high quantities of cysteine. Together, these two enzymes combine to form acetate. If a small amount of alcohol is consumed, this process is more than effective, leaving the acetaldehyde just a short amount of time to cause damage before it is destroyed. Unfortunately, the liver has a limited amount of glutathione, and once larger and larger amounts of alcohol are consumed, these stores quickly run out. This causes acetaldehyde to build up in the body, which in turn causes liver damage. Part of the reason women should not try to keep up with men when drinking is because women have less acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and glutathione, which makes their hangovers worse because it takes more time for their bodies to break down alcohol.
After a night of heavy drinking, a drinker will not sleep as well as usual because their body is trying to rebound from the depressive effects of alcohol. When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it inhibits glutamine. Once a drinker stops drinking, the body will try to make up for the lost glutamine by producing more than is necessary. These increased levels of glutamine will stimulate the brain while the drinker is sleeping, inhibiting him from reaching the deepest levels of sleep. This is the biggest contributor to the feeling of fatigue that a hangover sufferer will feel in the morning. Severe glutamine rebound can also cause tremors, anxiety, restlessness, and increased blood pressure.
Imbibing large amounts of alcohol can irritate the lining of the stomach, and alcohol also promotes the secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which can eventually cause the nerves to send messages to the brain that the stomach’s contents are hurting the body and must be removed, hence why heavy drinking can often cause nausea and vomiting. As unwanted as this may be, vomiting can reduce the effects of a hangover, because the alcohol expelled does not have to be processed through the liver.
Many people have claimed to have ‘miracle’ hangover cures; however there are a few that can actually lessen the effects. Drinking large amounts of water or non-carbonated sports drinks the morning after drinking can combat dehydration, as well as replace sodium and glycogen lost the previous night. A healthy breakfast of eggs, bananas, and fruit juice can also help ease the pain of a hangover. Eggs contain large amounts of cysteine, while bananas will replenish lost potassium. The fructose, vitamins and minerals found in fruit juices has been found to increase the body’s energy, as well as replace nutrients depleted the night before. Ultimately, the best cure for a hangover is just to wait it out. Once your body regains a balance of nutrients, the effects of a hangover will begin to diminish.
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