It’s no secret that most, if not all of us have experienced a hangover. Among the negative consequences, alcohol intoxication impairs judgment and it can bring on a depressed mood. But even after a drinker has sobered up, alcohol can still be harmful for the body. According to recent statistics, more than 75% of alcohol consumers have experienced a hangover at least once; 15% have one at least every month; and 25% of college students feel symptoms weekly. In this week’s article understand exactly how alcohol affects your body and discover ways to enjoy the parties without the next morning payback.
What is a Hangover?
The formal name for a hangover is veisalgia, from the Norwegian word for “uneasiness following debauchery” (kveis) and the Greek word for “pain” (algia). The common hangover includes some or all of the following symptoms:
• Poor overall well-being
• Dehydration(dry mouth, extreme thirst, dry eyes)
• Increased heart rate and blood pressure
• Trouble concentrating
• Sensitivity to light and sound
• Difficulty sleeping
The severity and number of symptoms varies from person to person and it depends on the amount of alcohol consumed. However, hangovers can be made worse by:
• Poor health
• Dehydration before drinking
• Lack of sleep
• Drinking on an empty stomach
• Increased physical activity while drinking (dancing, for example)
Biology of a Hangover:
When alcohol is consumed, it enters the bloodstream and causes the pituitary gland in the brain to block the creation of a hormone called vasopressin (also known as the antidiuretic hormone). Without this hormone, the kidneys are unable to reabsorb water into the body and therefore it goes directly to the bladder. This is why drinkers have to make frequent trips to the bathroom and why dehydration is one the main symptoms of a hangover. The morning after heavy drinking, the body sends a desperate message to replenish its water supply usually in the form of an extremely dry mouth. In addition, the body’s organs try to make up for their own water loss by taking water from the brain, causing it to decrease in size and pull on the membranes that connect the brain to the skull, resulting in pain, which explains the headache during a hangover.
The frequent urination also causes the loss of sodium and potassium which are necessary for proper nerve and muscle function; this also contributes to headaches, fatigue and nausea. Alcohol also breaks down the body’s store of glycogen in the liver by turning the chemical into glucose which is then expelled in the urine. Lack of this key energy source is partly responsible for the weakness and lack of coordination the next morning.
Ever wondered why red wine causes a worse hangover than beer for example? The answer is that different types of alcohol can result in different hangover symptoms. This is because some types of alcoholic drinks have a higher concentration of by products of fermentation called congeners. The greatest amounts of these toxins are found in red wine and dark liquors such as brandy, whiskey, bourbon and tequila. White wine and clear liquors such as vodka, gin and rum, have fewer congeners and therefore cause less frequent and less severe hangovers. Furthermore, these differences in congeners mean that combining various drinks can result in severe hangover symptoms. So, mixing many different drinks does indeed worsen your hangover. Additionally, an interesting fact is that the carbonation in beer actually speeds up the absorption of alcohol. As a result, if you start with a few beers and move on to other spirits, the body has even less time than usual to process the toxins.
Acetaldehyde is a product of alcohol metabolism that is more toxic than alcohol itself and it is created when the alcohol in the liver is broken down by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. It is then attacked by another enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, and another substance called glutathione. Together, the acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and the glutathione form a nontoxic substance similar to vinegar which is called acetate. The point of this process is that it leaves the acetaldehyde only a short amount of time to do its damage, provided that only a few drinks are consumed.
Unfortunately, when larger amounts of alcohol are consumed, the liver’s stores of glutathione quickly run out and acetaldehyde builds up in the body as the liver creates more glutathione and the toxin remains in the body for longer.
Ever wondered why women often experience worse hangovers than men? Although body weight is a factor, the main reason is that women have less acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and glutathione which leads to having worse hangovers because it takes longer for the body to break down the alcohol.
Why is it that after a night of heavy drinking, people have trouble sleeping? What happens is that the body is trying to overcome alcohol’s depressive effect. When someone is drinking, alcohol inhibits glutamine, one of the body’s natural stimulants. When the drinker stops drinking, the body tries to make up for lost time by producing more glutamine than it needs. This increase in glutamine levels stimulates the brain while the drinker is trying to sleep, making this quite difficult. This effect also contributes to the fatigue that comes with a hangover. Moreover, severe glutamine rebound may cause increased blood pressure, tremors, anxiety and restlessness.
Is it better to get rid of it all? Vomiting can actually reduce hangover symptoms because the alcohol is expelled from the stomach and the number of toxins in the body is also reduced. Alcohol is absorbed directly through the stomach which means that the cells that line the organ become irritated. Alcohol also promotes secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach which in turn causes the nerves to send a message to the brain that the stomach’s contents are harmful and must be expelled through vomiting.
In conclusion, this article may or may convince you to change your drinking habits. However, keep in mind that excessive alcohol consumption on a regular basis can cause serious health problems. Once again, the rule ‘everything in moderation’ sums up the argument. In next week’s article discover the best preventions and remedies for a hangover and distinguish between facts and fiction when it comes to alcohol and food.
By Kleio Bathrellou
Associate Nutritionist & Certified Sports Nutritionist