What is a Hangover?

Almost 75% of all drinkers will recognize the feelings of a throbbing headache, exhaustion, muscle fatigue and queasiness after a night of indulgence. Why does drinking alcohol have to be so good at the front and so awful and the end? There are many different factors, but the most important one is dehydration.  

Alcohol is a diuretic. In other words, you lose water. Dehydration is the most common cause of any type of hangover so says the program director of the Division of Metabolism and Health Effects of the National institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

For those who drink excessively you will be more dehydrated than your moderate drinking friends. Alcohol suppresses vasopressin, a hormone that repurposes the water released by your kidneys. When the hormone is missing, water just goes out your bladder and is flushed away. Alcohol is also the culprit for inflammation of the stomach lining which causes diarrhea and more dehydration.

Alcohol is metabolized by one group of enzymes breaking down the ethanol or the alcohol you drink in to acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic substance as well as carcinogenic. The next group of enzymes breaks down acetaldehyde and keeps you from dying. Acetaldehyde is metabolized into harmless acetate or vinegar. In other words you are really drinking ethanol and vinegar. Some people will quickly move through these two metabolism processes, but if acetaldehyde is not metabolized into vinegar quickly you will have a build-up of acetaldehyde toxicity. This is which causes the handover symptoms of sweating, skin flushing, nausea, vomiting and rapid pulse.

If you have a high sensitivity to alcohol, you will know it long before the hangover stage. You might feel nauseous after one or two drinks and if you are smart you will stop drinking at this point. Most people choose to ignore the yucky feeling if they are in social situations.

Hangovers are also caused by the taste of alcohol or congeners. The taste is byproducts of fermentation and distillation. Congeners give alcohol their distinct full flavor and give you a hangover the next day.


What can you do if you know you are going to have a hangover? Maybe you should drink in moderation or not at all, but drinking a glass of water in addition to your glass of alcohol is the best preventive measure. You may have your own hangover cure, but remember your problem is basically dehydration.  (You can check out our blood alcohol calculator here.)

Electrolyte imbalance from the loss of sodium and potassium is also a result of drinking and can cause loss of energy. You can replace sodium and potassium with a sports drink.

If you have an awful headache use aspirin or ibuprofen. Stay away from acetaminophen which will cause liver damage in drinkers.

There are some commercial treatments that have activated charcoal as their main ingredient in treating and preventing hangovers. Charcoal will filter alcohol compounds by moving them out of your system into the lower part of your small intestine. It is almost like the charcoal that ER first responders gives patients when they have been poisoned.

Try your own remedies or try not to drink in excess. All you are doing is harming your body and brain if you drink yourself senseless. Note: there are places you can go if you believe you or someone you love is suffering from alcohol addiction.   ( The HealthStatus Alcohol Abuse Quiz is here! )


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