- Shutterstock/Jacob Lund
- The exact causes of a hangover aren’t totally clear, but scientists say dehydration isn’t the primary culprit.
- Hangovers are caused more by the chemicals created when our body breaks down alcohol, according to the Alcohol Hangover Research Group.
- The science is still out on most hangover “cures” – aside from time.
The symptoms of a hangover are many, including bleary-eyed exhaustion, nausea, a parched throat, throbbing head, regret, and the short-lived resolution never to do that again.
Perhaps the best definition of the next-day consequences of excessive alcohol consumption, as reported in the proceedings of the 8th meeting of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group is a simple and straightforward one: “a general feeling of misery.”
Hangovers aren’t just a headache for those recovering from New Year’s Eve, St. Paddy’s Day, or from a general night out with friends – they’re a headache for scientists too. The researchers behind the Alcohol Hangover Research Group (AHRG) formed their organization because of the general neglect towards hangover research, despite the fact that humans have suffered this general misery for thousands and thousands of years.
That neglect leaves those researchers asking the same questions many of us have: why does it feel so bad and what, if anything, can we do to feel better? (The fact that their 8th annual meeting was held in New Orleans surely added some urgency to their quest.)
We’ve pulled information from their latest report and from other hangover research to see what science can contribute towards explaining why we feel the way we do on those rough mornings – and to see how we could perhaps feel a bit better.
File under obvious but true: a study of Australian revelers shows that the drunker people get, the more severe their hangovers tend to be.
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Researchers say that the specific indicator here is breath alcohol content. The higher that goes, the more severe the morning will be. Things like drinking faster or taking shots unsurprisingly speed up the process.
But certain things can help people moderate those levels of inebriation.
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Sure, drinking less can help, but that’s not the answer most people are looking for.
For now there’s no way to totally avoid a hangover, but eating fatty foods really does make your body absorb alcohol more slowly.
It’s hard to say how impaired hangovers make people exactly, but you probably should avoid driving hungover.
Some studies show people have slower reactions but normal accuracy on simple tasks; other studies show normal reactions but loss of accuracy. Either way, most data says getting behind the wheel while suffering after during a rough morning isn’t a good idea.
Some people generally suffer worse hangovers than others, but scientists really aren’t sure whether or not hangovers get worse with age.
One study in the journal Alcoholism, which looked at 51,645 Danish men and women, found that the older someone gets, the less likely they are to experience a severe hangover after a binge drinking session. But others argue that older people get worse hangovers, so this one is hard to know for sure.
Our bet? You might just physically feel worse in general if you are older and less fit than you once were. Plus, you might have more responsibilities that force you to get off the couch.
Hangovers make you tired, but some hangover symptoms also overlap with the lack of sleep that can be caused by alcohol consumption.
Researchers say that it’s hard to isolate the hangover itself from the other effects of drinking too much in real life conditions, especially those caused by lack of sleep.
Heavy alcohol consumption can knock you out, but most people experience disruptions to the second half of their sleep cycle if they’ve been drinking. This further contributes to daytime sleepiness, which has its own negative effects on cognitive and motor skill performance. If you can stop drinking a few hours before bed, that will probably help both your hangover and your sleep.
But hangovers also frequently lead to low blood sugar, which can make people moody and sluggish.
Scientists are still figuring out what it is exactly that makes you feel the way you do when hungover.
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According to the research group’s report, studies show that there’s significant inflammation associated with a bad hangover, indicating that your immune system plays a role. Researchers have found that hangovers are often accompanied by high levels of cytokines, molecules that signal the immune system to battle an infection.
A major component of hangovers has to do with the way our bodies break down alcohol.
One thing researchers know is that our bodies first metabolize ethanol, the main alcohol in booze. But we break ethanol down into other alcohols, including methanol, which our body turns into formaldehyde and formic acid – toxins that make you hurt.
This process happens about 10 hours after we stop drinking.
Other byproducts of alcohol might be responsible for part of the pain.
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We also produce acetalydehyde when we break down booze.
We break that down afterwords into acetate, which is harmless, but acetalydehyde is known to cause vomiting, nausea, a flushed face, and sweatiness – making it a prime culprit for at least a few hangover symptoms, according to some researchers.
Others have found that hangovers aren’t the worst when acetalydehyde levels are highest, meaning they probably aren’t responsible for everything.
Your gut plays a role.
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Some researchers think that excessive alcohol consumption over time could change gut bacteria in a way that makes people even more sensitive to that inflammation – potentially causing stomach and intestinal problems. Some of the general hangover symptoms may come from the gut-brain connection.
Some types of alcohol really do lead to worse hangovers than others.
- Flickr/Joshua Rappeneker
Whiskey might be your drink, but there’s some truth to the idea that alcohol with more congeners (a chemical component of booze that’s more often found in dark drinks like bourbon, red wine, and dark rum) can lead to a worse hangover.
Drinking dehydrates you, and that dehydration usually accompanies a hangover but probably isn’t responsible for it.
Most researchers say that the dehydrating effect of alcohol is exaggerated, though still real. At least some of those hangover symptoms (and definitely headache symptoms) come from the breakdown of alcohol, not dehydration. And while we need water in our bodies to break down alcohol, we still won’t feel better until our systems have dealt with the byproducts of that process.
There’s a biological basis for the idea that “hair of the dog” helps — but that also explains why hangovers are a risk factor for alcoholism.
If someone has a drink the morning after a night of drinking, their body will soon realize that there’s more ethanol in their bodies to start breaking down. Since our bodies prefer ethanol to the byproducts they break it down to (which cause hangover symptoms as they are broken down) they’ll stop that painful process temporarily, which is why a bit of the “hair of the dog that bit you” can at least temporarily take the pain and sick feeling of a hangover away.
But really, that’s just putting off the pain. Your body still has to break down the ethanol, which means the pain may come back even worse later.
Some researchers think this “hair of the dog” effect is why hangovers may be a risk factor for alcoholism instead of a natural deterrent to becoming an alcoholic. Studies show that alcoholics get some of the most severe hangovers around.
Hangovers stress you out.
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Drinking and being hungovercauses a spike in the stress hormone cortisol in your body, which has a long list of effects.
Although we need cortisol to respond to stress, excess levels of the hormone can lead to improper stress responses, altering our mental status, metabolism, and more. Those high irregular cortisol levels can make us less able to deal with the regular stresses of life.
For heavy drinkers, it takes seven days of abstinence for cortisol levels to stabilize.
Hangovers cost the economy billions every year.
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According to the CDC, excessive drinking cost the US something like $224 billion in 2006, and 72% of that – or $161 billion – was due to the loss of workplace productivity.
About a fifth of people claim to have some natural resistance to the feelings of being hungover.
The researchers at the AHRG say that isn’t certain, since many people who make that claim aren’t big drinkers in the first place.
As for cures, there’s still no magic bullet.
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If it’s true that gut bacteria play a role, then promoting healthy gut bacteria might help. In the future, there may be probiotic supplements that help, but for now, you can promote a healthy gut in general by eating lots of vegetables and fiber.
Some researchers think we’re getting closer to a product that’ll help promote rapid recovery by helping our bodies process alcohol faster, according to the AHRG’s report, but we’re not there yet.
There’s no proof that any hangover “cure” services work.
- Tech Insider/Molly Mulshine
Most “hangover cures” aren’t shown to do much of anything (sorry, burnt toast and pickle juice).
The same is probably true of hangover “cure” services. While these services can rehydrate you and perhaps relieve some symptoms, it’ll be impossible to cure a hangover until we’re actually sure about what causes that veisalgia – the medical term for the pain and suffering that follow a long night out.
There is some preliminary data indicating that drinking Korean or Asian pear juice before your night of debauchery (a traditional hangover prevention approach in East Asia) might lessen the pain, but it’s too soon to say for sure whether or not that really works.
Mostly, you’ll have to make do with time and rest. Getting an IV in your arm is probably not worth the money.
If you can, just rely on food and sleep until you feel better.
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Some anti-inflammatory drugs might make you feel better, though we’d caution against taking them.
Many anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen, can cause stomach problems if taken with a lot of booze. (Don’t ever take Tylenol or acetaminophen with alcohol, since that can cause serious liver damage.) There are even indications that some of the anti-inflammatories we think of as “safe” could significantly increase the risk for a heart attack, meaning they probably aren’t worth it, even for a real bad hangover.