Hangovers: the science, the horrors and the avoidance techniques

Hangovers: the science, the horrors and the avoidance techniques

The Harrowing Morning After: The Science of the Hangover and how to deal with it.

What exactly causes this dreadful aftermath of a night indulging in alcohol?

Let's venture into the science behind hangovers and explore what happens to your body, the symptoms you experience, and how you might alleviate the discomfort.

What Causes Hangovers?

Hangovers begin to rear their ugly head approximately ten hours after your blood alcohol level peaks. Factors such as sex, weight, and genetics play a crucial role in determining the onset and severity of your hangover, which can last anywhere from a few hours to more than a full day. As alcohol impacts numerous systems in your body, including the brain, the complexity of hangovers is evident in the 47 recorded symptoms ranging from sleep disturbances and dehydration to more severe effects like anxiety and impaired cognitive functions.

GABA, Glutamate, and Getting Wrecked 

The thing we tend to first notice after a night on the hard stuff is feeling wired and tired. Light hits like a freight train, loud noise is a screwdriver in your ear. This unpleasant condition is down to something known as the glutamate rebound effect. If you’ve been following SENTIA Spirits for a while, you’ll know about a neurotransmitter called GABA. GABA is responsible for calming the brain and central nervous system. It’s the first target of alcohol in the brain. But later, alcohol also targets glutamate, the yang to GABA’s yin. Glutamate does the opposite to GABA, it turns things on, helping us to lay down memories amongst many other functions (this is why when you’re really drunk you can have blackouts, with glutamate turned off, nothing is laying down memories.)

But your brain doesn’t like having its metaphorical gas pedal out of action, and so it responds to the downregulation of glutamate by turning on a great many more glutamate receptors. Alcohol’s effects are wearing off and all those glutamate receptors are waking up, ready to fire. The carnage of the night before is now amplified by glutamate working overtime.

There’s more in Alcohol than Ethanol 

One of the many villains in the hangover saga are congeners. These are chemical by-products of alcohol fermentation, found especially in dark liquors like brandy and red wine (but present in every alcoholic beverage under the sun) which exacerbate hangover symptoms. Whisky, for instance, contains about 400 different types of alcohol due to its aging process, increasing the congener content and, consequently, the likelihood of a worse hangover.

The Breakdown

Hangovers are also fuelled by substances like acetaldehyde, acetones, histamines, and methanol—by-products that turn up after your body has broken down all that booze you’ve been swimming in. Acetaldehyde is the most common by-product of alcohol metabolism, and it’s usually broken down further and eliminated from the body—though some of us have genetic eccentricities that mean it stays around longer, making us feel pretty terrible. One of the nastier conjoiners is methanol, which breaks down into formaldehyde and formic acid, both highly toxic, contributing significantly to the hangover experience.

Finally, all those poisonous conjoiners floating around trigger an inflammatory response in your body. This response, while natural, causes symptoms like nausea, headaches, and even emotional disturbances due to its impact on your gut, blood vessels, and brain function.

Frequently Asked Questions About Hangover Symptoms

Q: Why can't I bear bright lights and loud noises?
A: This sensitivity is due to the Glutamate Rebound Effect. Alcohol dampens glutamate activity in the brain, and as it metabolises, your brain compensates by ramping up glutamate levels, making you hypersensitive to stimuli—it’s also the foundation of "hangxiety".
Q: Why does my head ache?
A: Headaches during a hangover can be attributed to the glutamate rebound effect, the dilation of blood vessels in the brain by acetaldehyde, and the inflammatory response from your immune system, which can attack the body's own tissues in response to alcohol.
Q: Why do I feel nauseous and want to throw up?
A: Alcohol irritates the stomach lining and can cause inflammation in the pancreas, commonly known as pancreatitis. This irritation and inflammation lead to nausea and can even result in vomiting.

Dealing with Hangovers: Prevention and Treatment

Hangovers are best prevented through moderation, but there are some strategies to mitigate the symptoms:

  1. Pace Your Drinking: It takes roughly one hour for you to process one unit (10ml/8g) of alcohol. Drink slowly and you will have a chance to process the alcohol, which means your blood alcohol peak won’t be as high, which has been shown to give less of a hangover.
  2. Stay Hydrated: Drink more water with your alcoholic drinks: Stick some ice in your cider, add soda to wine, or have more mixers with your spirits—of course it can’t hurt to alternate between alcoholic and alcohol-free options too. 
  3. Opt for Clear Spirits: They contain fewer congeners, which are thought to make hangovers worse. One study showed that vodka produced a lesser hangover than whisky, for example (although both the vodka and whisky drinkers’ sleep and next-day concentration were bad.)
  4. Avoid Carbonated drinks: Choose flat over fizzy drinks, which can make you absorb alcohol faster.

How can I cure my hangover?

So, you’ve given yourself a hangover? Is there a cure, you ask? We’ve got some bad news, you can’t ‘cure’ a hangover. All you can do at this point is treat the symptoms. Here’s how:  

  1. Anti-inflammatories. It’s a bit of a no-brainer. Take ibuprofen when you go to bed and/or when you wake up, ideally with food as it can be harsh on the stomach lining. 
  2. Hydration. A pint of water before bedtime and one when you get up. Electrolyte/sports drinks also restore salts.
  3. Food. You’ll likely wake up with low blood sugar, which is why eating carbs makes you feel better. Eggs contain a lot of the nutrients you need at this point. 
  4. Caffeine. Any source of caffeine – if you can stomach it – will help you feel more awake. Coca-Cola (flat or not) provides three things that may help: carbs, fluids, caffeine.
  5. Move. In theory, any kind of exercise will help you speed up your metabolism and so help shift your hangover, but who wants to hit the gym when they’re hanging? 

Remember, while these tips can help alleviate symptoms, the only surefire way to prevent a hangover is to moderate your alcohol intake. Drink responsibly and take care of your body to avoid finding yourself sprawled out, nauseous, and with a jackhammer in your skull.