It’s a cruel fact that a wonderful evening, spent with friends and a few glasses of wine is so often followed by what can feel at the time like pure hell. You must know it: the throbbing headache every time you move, or even open your eyes too wide. The slight spinning when you get out of bed. The queasiness that puts you off your breakfast. Hangovers are no fun.
Despite the fact that so many of us have experienced hangovers, most of us don’t really know why we’re being subject to such excruciating punishment for just enjoying a couple of drinks. We chalk it up to dehydration, cheap liquor, or mixing drinks, but what’re really going on in our bodies is actually a little more sinister.
What are hangovers, really?
Dehydration, it turns out, only plays a minor role in your hangover. To put it simply, it’s alcohol withdrawal.
David Nutt MD writes for TED that “Yes, the symptoms are less extensive, unpleasant and life-threatening than those an alcoholic will go through. But however you dress it up, your brain and body are withdrawing from alcohol”.
Typically, these unpleasant side effects will hit around 10 hours after medium to high alcohol consumptions, although this can vary depending on factors like weight, gender and age. The agony can then last from a few hours, to well over a day ( the worst), affecting our bodies in a range of different (and horrible) ways.
Hangovers are pretty complex, but essentially if you have one, you’ve poisoned yourself.
“One of the ways that alcohol is metabolized in our bodies is by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). As ADH breaks down ethanol, it forms acetaldehyde, which is a poison and a carcinogen,” writes Nutt. “Some people have genetic variants of the enzymes that make this breakdown faster or slower.”
The quality of your hangover can therefore depend on your genes, but that’s not all. What you drink will impact how you feel too. According to Nutt, “Consuming high quantities of congeners — chemical byproducts produced during fermentation and distillation processes — is also thought to make hangovers worse. There are high concentrations of congeners in red wine and distilled spirits, for example, and low ones in clear spirits such as vodka”.
According to David Robson at the BBC, these congeners may also be why mixing drinks is such a bad idea. The more varieties of booze you try, the more varied the toxic cocktail of congeners you’re ingesting.
Hangovers also feel icky, because they stimulate your body’s inflammatory response. This is a natural function of the immune system which happens when your body is being damaged, or attacked by something. Alcohol harms not only your gut as it breaks down into those toxic components, but also damaged blood vessels, causing your body to attack…well…itself. This is the cause of the nausea, vomiting, headaches, and sometimes worse symptoms like confusion and depression. Basically, just not a good time.
Furthermore, excessive alcohol consumption damages mitochondrial DNA, especially in the liver.”Mitochondria, the energy-producing machines in our cells, are susceptible to damage from the free radicals produced by alcohol via acetaldehyde,” writes Nutt. “Even slight damage to the mitochondria can lead to toxicity in brain regions.”
After learning all of that, if you’re starting to have second thoughts about opening that bottle of wine tonight, you’re not alone.
Why are some people immune to hangovers?
Weirdly, a few lucky individuals ( about 23% of us, to be exact) don’t suffer from hangovers at all, even after they go on an all-out bender. Studies seem to indicate that this may just be due to good luck in the genetic lottery. It tends to run in families.
It may also be, according to Robson, that some people just pace themselves better – drinking slowly enough that their blood alcohol level never rises above about 0.10%.
Clearly, they’re the smart ones.
How to cure a hangover
This is what you came for, right?
Unfortunately, it turns out that most of the “hangover remedies” that your friends will recommend are just made up. Mixing together magic potions of vinegar, Worcester sauce, and raw egg is unlikely to help you, even if the foul taste might distract you for a moment. Since dehydration doesn’t play as big a role in hangovers as most people believe, chugging buckets of water probably won’t do the trick either – no more than any other placebo would anyway.
So really, when it comes to hangovers, prevention is better than cure. Here, everything your parents told you rings true, and I don’t think I need to explain in much detail why it’s important to pace yourself and drink moderately.
Keeping your blood alcohol level low by drinking slowly will allow your body time to process the chemicals better. Drinking water in between or diluting your drinks will also not only help you stay hydrated ( which is just healthy in general) but also lesson the amount of alcohol you’re ingesting. Drinking flat drinks, rather than fizzy ones is a good idea, since according to Nutt, fizzy drinks could make you absorb alcohol faster.
Next, you can opt to drink clear spirits. According to Nutt, “one study showed that vodka produced a lesser hangover than whisky — although sleep and next-day concentration were bad in both vodka and whisky drinkers.”
If it’s already too late
When you do feel that throbbing pain hitting you right between the eyes, treating yourself to a little TLC doesn’t hurt. Take an anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen – preferably with food, since you’ve already gone and damaged your stomach lining with all that liquor.
Avoid the hair of the dog! Adding more alcohol to your system, contrary to popular belief, will only delay your hangover further.
Eat carbs. This is just general life advice, but also works to raise your blood sugar, which could help you feel a little better.
Exercise. I know this is the last thing you’ll feel like doing ( trust me. been there) but working out will speed up your metabolism and help get rid of some of the nasty toxins you’ve put in your body. It’ll probably only suck for the first thirty minutes, and after you’ve gotten in a good sweat, you’ll feel as good as new.
Hangovers have been with us as long as alcohol has, and they won’t be going away any time soon. But with a few smart practices – and armed with the knowledge of what that G&T is really doing to your system – you may be able to dodge some of the worst after-effects of your night out.