Arrrrgh, the dreaded hangover, I hated them. I don’t know anyone who actually enjoys a hangover, but I can’t stand them. It’s one of the top three reasons why I quit drinking alcohol. I used to tolerate them because I had such a good time drinking with my friends, that the inevitable hangover was a price worth paying. But as I got older, and the hangovers got worse, the scales turned and eventually the drinking just wasn’t worth the pain any more. In the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen, I didn’t want to wake up “with a freight train running through the middle of my head” ever again!
I hear of people who claim they don’t get hangovers, but I’m calling bullshit on that one. I’m mean come on, not even a slightly dry month when you wake up after a huge night on the booze? No headache, tiredness or lethargy, nausea or desire to throw up all afternoon? I simply can not believe that some people can have a 12-hour bender then wake up feeling as fresh as a daisy. It just doesn’t make any sense to me, and I think the science backs me up on that one.
It’s funny, during my 20 years of drinking I never really thought about what exactly causes hangovers. I mean of course it’s the copious amounts of booze I would have drunk the night before, but I’m talking about from a scientific point of view. Why is it that we wake up with some or all of the symptoms I mentioned above, apart from our drinking super-humans of course?
Give it to me science, what causes a hangover?
As it turns out scientists don’t actually know for sure what causes a hangover, although they do have a name for it…veisalagia! Even the official scientific name for a hangover is awful. We used to think it was dehydration because ethanol (the alcohol in your drink) is a toxic chemical that acts as a diuretic, so you pee more liquid out than your body retains. Dehydration after a big night on the drink may be the cause of your headache as your body starts to restore the fluid levels in your body. When your body is dehydrated your brain shrinks causing pain in your head. This causes your blood vessels to dilate to increase blood flow and oxygen, causing swelling and discomfort to the lining that encompasses your brain which equals more pain! So dehydration may account for some of the symptoms of a hangover, but certainly not all of them. Drinking water in between the beers and before going to bed isn’t going to completely cure your hangover, but it might help with the headaches eventually.
Are hangovers caused by a combination of issues?
Alcohol causes inflammation to the lining of the stomach and impedes the digestion process of anything you may have in there at the time. Gastric acid production increases alongside pancreatic and intestinal secretions, probably causing you to feel sick and nauseous. So eating a dodgy kebab full of garlic sauce on your way home from the pub might seem like a good idea at the time, but the next morning you’re probably going to pay a heavy price!
Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, as your liver processes the alcohol in your body a byproduct called acetaldehyde is formed. This is a toxic compound 10-30 times more potent than the actual booze you drank the night before and is the most likely reason why you feel like an extra from The Living Dead when you wake up. Studies have shown acetaldehyde causes sweating, skin flushes, nausea and vomiting (remind you of anything).
Why do some people get worse hangovers than others?
The jury is out on this one I’m afraid. Some studies have found the older you get the worse the hangovers, while other studies have found the complete opposite. In my experience the older I got the worse the hangovers got, and I never want to experience another one again! It seems the luck of the gene pool might play a part in this one, with some people able to metabolise alcohol into acetaldehyde more easily than others.
Another theory is that drink choice can effect the severity of your hangover. Alcoholic beverages contain a compound called congeners, and depending on your drink of choice, they may contain more or less than others. For example darker drinks such as brandy and whiskey have way more congeners than lighter drinks such as vodka and gin, so you’re likely to experience a more painful hangover. Whisky and red wine have high levels of the congener methanol that hangs around in the body after the liver has processed all of the alcohol, which could account for the lingering effects of a hangover. There are a variety of congeners, and they are found in various alcoholic drinks. Having different congeners flowing through your body can lead to a nastier hangover, which would support the theory that mixing your drinks is a bad idea.
Also, drinks that have a higher alcohol concentration are likely to give you a more severe hangover. So a 30ml shot of bourbon may have the same alcohol content as a pint of beer, but is more likely to give you a hangover.
Is drinking alcohol worth the hassle?
If you ask me drinking so much alcohol your brain shrinks then swells, toxic compounds called acetaldehyde and congeners start flowing through your system, and gastric acid production and pancreatic and intestinal secretions increasing unnecessarily doesn’t sound like such a great idea! Once upon a time I thought it was just dehydration, and a few glasses of water in between drinks, before I went to bed and throughout the following day would cure me. It’s probably why I could justify the punishment I was inflicting on my body with those big nights on the town. But now that scientific experts are making new discoveries about what exactly happens inside our bodies when we have too much to drink, the thought of drinking again has even less appeal than ever before!