The science of a hangover

On average we each drink more than a gallon of pure alcohol each year. Worldwide this adds up to 1 trillion pints of beer or 250 billion bottles of red wine or 100 billion bottles of vodka.

Much of the world will be doing their best to add to this total on New Year’s Eve and will be waking up on New Year’s Day with a stinking hangover. But why do we get them?

The simple reason, of course, is drinking too much alcohol. Dehydration is responsible for most of the nastier effects of a hangover. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it speeds the loss of water from the body – causing a parched mouth, headaches and that feeling of continual dizziness. Nausea, vomiting and indigestion can also be caused by alcohol irritating the stomach lining.

The science behind a hangover (Flickr pic by cloumnfive)

The science behind a hangover (Flickr pic by cloumnfive)

The science

90 seconds after you take your first sip the alcohol hits your brain and interferes with your neurotransmitters making you talkative and self confident. By your second drink your inhibitions are really dropping.

Inside your brain a chemical called Vasopressin would normally be sending a signal to your kidneys to tell them how much water to take from your blood. Alcohol switches this chemical off, so your kidneys start channelling most of the water to your bladder. Because of this, for every drink you take you are expelling four times as much in urine. And as many of us have experienced, once you break the seal you are back and forth to the loo all night long.

By the end of the night you are getting tired and emotional and you go home and crash out and sleep terribly. This is because alcohol suppresses the production of Glutamine, one of the body’s natural stimulants. When you stop drinking, production starts up again so you spend the night tossing and turning and not gaining a full refreshing dream sleep.

While you are having your awful sleep, your dehydrated liver has to process all the alcohol toxins you consumed, so it steals water from your brain which shrinks and begins to pull on the membranes attaching it to your skull. This is why you wake up with a pounding head, dry mouth and nausea from the after effects of the toxins.

How to prevent a hangover

Below are a few tips given by Drink Aware on how to stop the morning after becoming a nightmare:

  • Try not to drink on an empty stomach; eat something – preferably carbohydrates – before you start drinking. The food will help slow the body’s absorption of the alcohol.
  • Stick to clear drinks (that don’t contain congeners that can worsen the hangover).
  • Drink plenty of water or soft drinks in between alcoholic drinks.
  • Your body takes about one hour to process each unit of alcohol. Consider stopping drinking well before the end of the evening, so the process can begin.

How to cure a hangover

If you do wake up in the morning and find the four horsemen of the apocalypse are taking part in a show jumping trial inside your head, then try these tips for returning to the world of the living:

  • Drink as much water as you can before hitting the sack and keep more by the bed to slurp if you wake in the night. Continue drinking plenty of water the next day. Also have some fresh juice to give yourself a vitamin boost.
  • If you really need it, take a painkiller – a soluble one is good for a headache and gentle on the stomach.
  • Take an antacid to settle your stomach.
  • Try a rehydration treatment sachet – they replace lost minerals and salt.
  • Avoid caffeine (tea or coffee or energy drinks) – these may give you a slight temporary lift, but they may also dehydrate you further.
  • Eat something – bananas and kiwis are a good source of potassium (something you lose with the diuretic effect of alcohol).
  • Go for a gentle stroll if you feel able and get some fresh air and light on the face.
  • Avoid hair of the dog – it only delays the problem. Falling into the habit of attempting to drink off hangovers can be one of the first signs that you are becoming dependent on alcohol.
  • Get plenty of rest and relaxation, take a break from alcohol, and when you do next decide to drink, remember the hangover prevention tips to avoid another painful morning after.

Mine’s a pint (of water).


One Comment on “The science of a hangover”

  1. Rob says:

    There went the science bit…..!

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