The Science of a Hangover

Lucy Cooper explores how we can stave off the consequences of a night out

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Image Credit: Angie Garrett

As Freshers week draws to a close, some university students are sure to be nursing a heavy head from the festivities – a trend that will continue throughout the year. There’s plenty of old wives tales and urban myths about how to lessen the pain of the morning after, but today Nouse takes a look at the science.

Quite simply, there’s no singular reason for hangovers. Of course, they partly occur from the dehydration that drinking alcohol causes. Lots of those key hangover symptoms – thirst, lightheadedness, etc – can all be partly traced back to the body’s lack of hydration. Alcohol can lead to the body producing more urine, which speeds up the dehydration process. However, it is not the sole culprit, and some studies have even shown that electrolyte levels in hungover and non-hungover people are pretty much the same – meaning hydration is not the only factor when it comes to a hangover. However, it never hurts to keep yourself hydrated throughout the night, or by stocking up on Lucozades for the next day; they can help replace the nutrients you lost.

There are also suggestions that hangovers come from the buildup of toxic compounds in the body when attempting to process the alcohol. Having seen how a Blue Shit from Stones affects the colour of a tongue, the idea that alcohol causes toxicity does not seem like a particularly far-flung suggestion. Called acetaldehyde, this poison is broken down fairly quickly – but some people will take longer, leading to worse hangovers as it overstays its welcome in the body. This toxin can often result in nausea, which helps explain the vomiting that often occurs after a drinking session.

Alcohol also stimulates a neurotransmitter called GABA which affects the brain, leading to an impact on consciousness, memory making and judgement. GABA gets in the way of another neurotransmitter called glutamate which turns on the brain, and once you stop drinking, the body will attempt to rebalance these by increasing glutamate, which can lead to headaches and things like lights being too bright.

Sleep is also affected by alcohol, which often blocks people from entering more deep sleeps, and can lead to earlier wake ups. Although this might not cause a hangover in itself, it contributes to fatigue and general roughness.

So is there a way to avoid those difficult morning afters? Unfortunately… not really. There’s no shortage of internet remedies, but experts have struggled to find a scientifically proven way to avoid a hangover. Research on hangovers is scarce enough, and those that have delved into it have found little of use. There are early studies around certain Chinese herbal medicines that might help reduce the amount of acetaldehyde produced, but in the meantime, there are a few steadfast plans that can ensure you have slightly better luck on your next night out.

Firstly, make sure you eat beforehand. Food doesn’t absorb the alcohol itself, but a full digestive system will help slow down the amount your body is absorbing. Of course, many people like to have less to eat to make the alcohol hit quicker, but this is a surefire way to increase the risk of a hangover.

Once you begin drinking, the choice of beverage can come into play when considering a hangover. Drinks with higher alcohol content in a smaller volume are the more dangerous tipples – going for a shot instead of a mixed drink, beer or wine, is upping your chances of a rough morning. Alcoholic drinks also contain congeners, which give the flavour, but can contribute to the hangovers. These are found more in dark liquors (like brandy and dark rum) than clear liquors like gin and vodka, so avoiding these might help the severity of a hangover – although the ultimate factor is the amount you drink, of any colour.

Now you have your drink, drink it slower. It takes about an hour and a half for the body to process a typical drink, so the slower you drink it, the more on top of the alcohol your body will be the next day. If you’re trying to avoid a hangover, perhaps give the chugging a miss.

However, even when following these tips, there’s still a chance you will wake up with a hangover if you drink a lot of alcohol. What can you do to alleviate the pain?

Food is always a good help. Bland foods can help reduce any nausea, and when waking up after a night of drinking, you are likely to have low blood sugar levels. Thus, carbohydrates can help with building those back up. Getting some food in you will also help provide important vitamins that became depleted throughout the night. Eggs are especially good for nutrients, so try not to skip that breakfast!

Of course, something no one wants to hear when they are suffering from a hangover is to do exercise but… getting out and moving is a key way to improve the symptoms. Although it might not scientifically improve the physical hangover, it releases endorphins, helping to ease some of the symptoms – reducing anxiety and inflammation of the body. However, be careful to ensure you keep hydrated, and try to pick a lower-intensity exercise.

There might not be much positivity in the scientific research around alcohol and hangovers, but one thing is for sure – if you drink less and in moderation, you have a much better chance of coming away the next day feeling okay.

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