ScienceScience Sunday

Science Sunday: Cure For A Hangover

So yesterday, as you may well already know, was St. Patrick's day– a day more commonly known as a day of drinking more than it is a celebration of St. Patrick. So I imagine that some of you (the ones over 18, or 21 in the US, of course. We would hate to be encouraging underage drinking here at TS!) are probably feeling the after-effects this morning. 

What is a hangover?

A hangover is the gross feeling you get after heavy consumption of alcohol. It can manifest itself in a variety of symptoms, such as a headache, nausea, dehydration, feeling drowsy or lethargic, sensitivity to light and noise, feeling a bit 'down', or diarrhea (affectionately known by a friend of mine from high school as 'booze poos').

What causes hangovers?

The actual causes of hangovers are still being debated, although it has been suggested that this is the early stage of alcohol withdrawal. Another main culprit is dehydration. Ethanol (alcohol) is a diuretic, as it causes the pituitary gland in the brain to block a hormone called vasopressin. With this hormone blocked, the body sends water straight to the kidney instead of reabsorbing it, which is why you might notice that you need to go to the bathroom lots after your first urination of the night ('breaking the seal'). 

Because the body is dehydrated, it sends you signals to replenish its water supply– which is why you have a dry mouth and feel extremely thirsty. Your organs require lots of water to function properly, and a lot of this fluid is taken from the brain, thus making it shrink and pull on the membranes which connect the brain to the skull. Thus giving you that killer headache!

Another cause of hangovers is sleep deprivation. The combination of a late night plus increase of glutamine levels in the brain bought on by excess alcohol means that the body is prevented from entering the REM stage of sleep and being able to sleep deeply.

All of these factors combine to give hangovers.

What can you do to prevent a hangover? Other than going easy on the alcohol, that is. 

Eating before you drink alcohol is very important. I know many people who will eat very little before a night out, so as to become more drunk more quickly. This is a really bad idea, as it means your stomach can't metabolise the alcohol, so it gets into your bloodstream faster. This (obviously) does make you feel drunker faster, but it is also really hard on your liver and can lead to alcohol poisoning. Eating carb-heavy foods before drinking is a really good idea.

Another good idea is to drink water or a drink with electrolytes just before you head to bed after a big night out. This won't necessarily prevent the symptoms, but it will lessen them. 

Different types of alcohol can lead to hangovers of different severity. The reason for this is that the fermentation process used in the production of alcohol produces chemicals known as congeners. Dark liquors, such as tequila, brandy, wine and whiskey have lots more congeners than lighter-coloured liquors such as vodka and gin, and thus cause hangovers more frequently. Researchers have shown in a study that 33% of people who consumed bourbon (high in congeners) experienced a severe hangover, compared to subjects who consumed the same amount of vodka (source).

You might have been told not to mix different alcoholic beverages, too. This is true, as the impurities in the different alcohols can react and give rise to severe hangover symptoms. Further to this, the carbonation in beer speeds up the absorbtion of alcohol, so drinking another kind of liquor after drinking beer doesn't give your body much time to process the toxins. 

Watching what you drink, in addition to the quantity is a good way to prevent hangovers. 

So I'm hungover– what can I do to cure it?

First off- carrying right on drinking (or 'hair of the dog') is a bad idea. Sure, it might technically be a good solution to a hangover, but you're really just delaying the inevitable.

There are many folk-cures for hangovers — from raw eggs to coffee and aspirin. Many pharmacies will offer over-the-counter remedies, too. The evidence for the efficacy for these is severly lacking, however (see). In fact, taking aspirin after drinking alcohol is a bad idea as acetaminophen and alcohol can cause liver damage (although it might help with the headaches). 

At this stage, there has been little serious research into the pathology of hangovers, which unfortunately means that no effective treatments have been found. In the mean time make sure to drink responsibly, stay hydrated and eat a proper breakfast, with vitamin-rich foods (e.g. fruit). 

Feel free to add anything you think I've missed in the comments!

Featured Image Credit: Google Images

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Lauren is a Maths and Physics student from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. She has an affinity for reality, and you can find her on twitter @lolrj, or Google+.


  1. March 18, 2012 at 4:21 pm —

    "Different types of alcohol can lead to alcohols of different severity."

    'Alcohols' is meant to be 'hangovers', right?

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