Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Science of the Hangover

One member of TWSF will be turning 26 this month and I am feeling pretty old. It’s kind of depressing, I’m older than Lebron James and have already given up on the dreams of seeing more than one comma on a paycheck and  dunking a basketball.  This disheartening realization will make me want to hit the bottle even harder when TWSF and friends go out to celebrate (mourn) my big day. But after a night out on the town we will expose a glaring sign of my age and perhaps the biggest disparity between the lame late 20s version of myself and the awesome-at-my-peak college version of myself: my hangover recovery ability.

Hangovers never used to be an issue. In college we would go play basketball all day after a night of drinking bottom shelf liquor and warm Natty Lite. But today I’m lucky if I can manage a trip to brunch or Whole Foods the morning after drinking wine while making dinner, craft beers at the bar, and going to bed at a reasonable hour (if you listen closely you can hear college Chuck rolling over in his grave). The growing difficulty in my hangover recoveries led me to look into the science of the morning after to see if I can go about things a little wiser now that I am a little older.

If you are over 21 years old and aren’t in one of those non-drinking religions, chances are you are familiar with at least a couple of the symptoms of a hangover: headache, sensitivity to light and sound, diarrhea, loss of appetite, trembling, nausea, fatigue, increased heart rate and blood pressure, dehydration (dry mouth, extreme thirst, dry eyes), difficulty concentrating, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, weakness, and  poor sense of overall well-being*.

*Poor sense of overall well-being is unique in that it is caused by both alcohol and by what you wake up next to in the morning.

Hangovers of course vary from person to person based on factors like sex, size and tolerance. The symptoms of any hangover can be increased by drinking on an empty stomach, lack of sleep, increased physical activity while drinking (dancing), dehydration before drinking, and poor health (turning 26).

Hangovers are caused by the chain of events that occur as your body attempts to process the toxic alcohol that is contained in your favorite libations. The reactions that occur in your body are pretty amazing, I have broken them down into their respective stages of the night out and morning after.

The night out - breaking the seal

When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it causes your brain to block the production of a chemical called vasopressin. In the absence of vasopressin your kidneys, in a survival tactic, begin sending water directly to the bladder rather than reabsorbing it into your body. Studies show that for every unit of alcohol consumed the kidneys will send 4 units of water to your bladder. This chain reaction is the cause of increased peeing most of us experience during a night out. Throughout the course of the night you body will expel more water than it is taking in causing you to become dehydrated.  As you pee you will also be losing glycogen, vitamins, and electrolytes through your urine.

The night out – riding the vomit comet

Alcohol is absorbed directly through the stomach. As a result, the cells that line the stomach will become irritated and begin secreting hydrochloric acid. These two factors will eventually trigger the nerves in your stomach to send a message to your brain requesting an ejection the contents of your stomach (your stomach’s request can also lead to your ejection from the bar). Throwing up will actually help your hangover as your body will have less toxins to process.

The morning after headache – cause: too much peeing

After a night of vasopressin deprived urination, your body will be starved of water. Your dehydrated organs will attempt to make up for their water loss by stealing water from your brain.  Your dehydrated brain will actually decrease in size and pull on the membranes that connect the brain to the skull, resulting in a headache. The loss of electrolytes due to increased urination also add to the headache as they are essential to proper cell function. Glycogen, a key energy source, is also lost during urination and contributes to the weakness, fatigue and lack of coordination the morning after.

The morning after headache – cause: acetaldehyde poisoning

As your body metabolizes alcohol it produces a byproduct called acetaldehyde which is actually more toxic than alcohol itself. Fortunately your body produces two substances that break down the toxic byproduct called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and glutathione. Unfortunately your liver only has a limited supply of glutathione. It is a supply that quickly runs out when confronted with large quantities of alcohol. The acetaldehyde toxin will enter your bloodstream as your liver produces more glutathione. This imbalance causes headaches and general discomfort. More unfortunately, women have less acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and glutathione than men, making their hangovers worse.

Sleep difficulties – glutamine rebound

Have you ever had difficulty sleeping after a heavy night of boozing? Alcohol inhibits the body’s production of glutamine, a natural stimulant.  After alcohol is processed and leaves your system, the body tries to compensate for lost time by producing more glutamine than it needs. The increase in glutamine over stimulates the brain and can keep you from reaching a deep sleep. Severe glutamine rebound situations can be responsible for tremors, anxiety, restlessness and increased blood pressure.

Now that we know a little about the science behind a hangover, certain actions can be taken to alleviate the symptoms:

Beer before liquor will make you sicker

The carbonation in beer actually speeds up the absorption of alcohol in the stomach. As a result the body will have less time to process any liquor that follows, so try and keep any beer drinking for later.

Color matters

Different alcohols contain different amount of congeners, an impurity byproducts created during the fermentation process. Congeners are another cause of hangover. The greatest concentrations are found in dark drinks such as red wine and dark liquors like whiskey and bourbon. White wine and clear liquors like vodka and gin have fewer congeners and therefore cause less severe hangovers. In one study, 33% of those who drank bourbon in proportion to their body weight reported severe hangover, compared to 3% of those who drank the same amount of vodka.

Hangover Remedies

Hair of the Dog – Drinking what you drank the night before is a short term solution. The buzz will make you feel better, but drinking more will only add to the backlog of toxins your body has to deal with. However this solution will work if you just keep drinking forever.

Anti hangover pills - They are basically multivitamins that require you to drink water every couple of hours. They are a rip off.

Coffee – Coffee is a bit of a wash, it has caffeine which will temporarily improve your energy level. Caffeine is also a vasoconstrictor, meaning it reduces the size of blood vessels which can alleviate a headache. But, caffeine is also a diuretic and can make you even more dehydrated.

Eggs – Eggs contain large amounts of cysteine, a compound found in glutathione. Eating egg will help the liver combat the toxin acetaldehyde.

Bananas and Gatorade – they have potassium and electrolytes and will replenish what was lost during urination.

Pain killers – Use Aspirin, it is a non-caffeinated pain reliever and anti-inflammatory.

Vitamins – Vitamins are good since your body loses a lot through frequent urination.

Water – Water is the cure for dehydration.

Time – This is the only foolproof cure for the hangover, no matter what you do, the body still has to clean up all of those toxins.

After all of my research I have devised two plans that old people should follow if they plan on going out and drinking:

Plan A
Before you go out:
Eat a meal and birthday cake, drink water, take a vitamin.

While you’re out:
Drink in moderation, alternate glass of water and booze, stay away from the dark stuff and no beer before liquor.

Before bed:
Water and aspirin.

The next day:
More water and aspirin, another vitamin, breakfast of eggs, banana and Gatorade.

Plan B:
Admit you are old, grab an early bird special, watch some Golden Girls, take your vitamins and go to bed.

**I was instructed by the TWSF lawyers to cite my sources. Most of the facts were lifted from a How It Works Podcast and Wikipedia.


  1. Great post and Happy (early) Birthday! Don't poo poo the late twenties! While the hangover is worse, getting drunk occurs more quickly [read: cheap date], and a steady pay-check = quality liquor + a cab ride back to your warm bed (or at least to someone else's). All this certainly beats drinking whatever was left over from the last kegger and crashing on someone's couch. I think we can all raise our glasses to that. Cheers!

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