A look at the science and myths behind hangovers

We all have our own dubious remedies, but what is actually happening in our bodies during a hangover?

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Despite being one of most prevalent maladies of mankind, the common hangover is still not particularly well understood. Hangovers seem to be a combination of inflammation, dehydration and low blood sugar levels, but how significant each of these things are is still up for debate. What’s more, there are a whole host of widespread beliefs about drinking and preventative hangover cures that many people swear by, which are actually little more than folklore.

Until recently, it had been widely assumed that dehydration was the main culprit behind the well-known symptoms, but research has shown that dehydration plays a smaller role than previously thought. While it is true that alcohol blocks the release of a hormone called vasopressin, causing us to urinate more and become dehydrated, a study conducted by the Utrecht Institute for Pharmaceutical Sciences showed that markers of dehydration such as vasopressin were not significantly correlated to hangover severity. So contrary to popular belief, drinking buckets of water before bed is unlikely to prevent you from feeling the night’s effects in the morning.

Another possible cause of hangover symptoms is the buildup of acetaldehyde, which is ten to thirty times more toxic than alcohol itself. When the liver breaks down alcohol, acetaldehyde is produced before being broken down further into a non-toxic substance called acetate. However, our livers can only metabolise an average of about one ounce of alcohol per hour, so drinking any more than this will mean that some of the unbroken down acetaldehyde will pass into your blood stream. At high concentrations, acetaldehyde causes many of the symptoms associated with hangovers.

Though we have some idea about the biology of hangovers, they remain mysterious enough to prevent the development of effective cures. However, science has managed to dispel many of the widespread myths surrounding alcohol.

For example, the belief that mixing your drinks will get you more drunk or result in a worse hangover is erroneous. The combination of drinks has little to no effect on hangover severity; it’s all about the amount you drink and the strength of those drinks. The only reason that mixing could contribute to a worse hangover is that the bigger the variety of drinks you have, the more likely it is that you will drink something containing lots of congeners.

Congeners are natural chemicals that irritate blood vessels and poison our tissues slightly. They are found in higher quantities in dark drinks like red wine and whisky than in clear drinks like vodka. In fact, some types of whisky contains up to 37 times as many congeners as vodka. As a general rule, therefore, the clearer the drink, the kinder the hangover. But you can mix white rum, gin, vodka and the like to your heart’s content without augmenting your discomfort the next morning – as long as you’re not just having three times the amount of alcohol by doing so.

In a similar vein, a 2019 study by Köchling et al found conclusive evidence that the order in which you drink different types of alcohol has no effect on the severity of your hangover. Despite old folk wisdoms such as “beer before wine and you'll feel fine; wine before beer and you'll feel queer” existing in many languages, there is no evidence to support these sayings.

It is true however, that bubbly drinks get you drunk more quickly. The carbon dioxide in fizzy beverages opens up a muscle in your stomach called the pyloric sphincter, which allows alcohol to pass through into the small intestine and get absorbed faster. So if you’re ever running late for pre-drinks and need to catch up with your pals to get on their level, carbonated drinks should be your go to.

In terms of cures, there isn’t enough evidence to conclusively say that any of the commonly used remedies work, though there is plenty to discredit some of them. Much to the chagrin of students, we are left to muddle through with these dubiously effective hangover cures like ‘hair of the dog’ and questionable concoctions, relying on little more than distraction and placebo effect to get us into lectures the next morning. Of course, the best way to avoid a hangover is to simply drink less … but what would be the fun in that?

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