The science of your hangover

Understand exactly how alcohol affects your body and you can enjoy the party season without the payback. Kate Hilpern reports

Hangoverville is a place nobody wants to visit, but the road towards it is one many of us end up taking, especially during the party season. The telltale signs of having reached your destination are unmistakable and aptly described on a global scale. "Smacked from behind" is the literal translation of the Swedish word for hangover. Meanwhile, the Salvadoreans describe themselves as waking up "made of rubber", the French with a "wooden mouth" or a "hair ache" and the Danes with "carpenters in the forehead".

"In the past, dehydration was thought to be the main cause of hangover symptoms," says Emma Derbyshire, independent nutritionist and consultant to the Natural Hydration Council. "But now, scientists believe that alcohol withdrawal, and chemicals formed in the body when our livers break down alcohol, also contribute to those dreaded symptoms."



Double dose of toxins

"Having any toxin hanging around in your system will get you in trouble, and alcohol is no exception," says Sneh Khemka, medical director at Bupa International. "It passes through the stomach and into the bloodstream, which distributes it throughout the body, irritating and even damaging cells and cell membranes. As if that's not bad enough, a product of alcohol metabolism that is more toxic than alcohol itself, acetaldehyde, is created when the alcohol in the liver is broken down. So in essence, you get a double whammy of toxins in the body."

The good news is that acetaldehyde is automatically attacked by another enzyme and a substance called glutathione. The process works well, leaving the acetaldehyde only a short time to do its damage, but – and it's an important but – only if you stick to a few drinks. "The liver's stores of glutathione quickly run out when larger amounts of alcohol enter the system," Khemka says. "The acetaldehyde builds up in the body, causing headaches and vomiting."



Muddled internal messages

Ever wondered why your sleep is disrupted after a night on the lash? Alcohol inhibits the production of glutamine, a natural stimulant whose job it is to keep you awake. When you stop drinking later on, your body rebounds by overproducing that stimulant. Not only does this prevent you from getting the deep sleep you need, it also causes fatigue, stomach irritation and a general sense of illness.

"Alcohol also promotes secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, eventually causing the nerves to send a message to the brain that the stomach's contents are hurting the body and must be expelled through vomiting," adds Colin Wilson, research scientist at Water Wellpoint.



Dehydration

One 250ml glass of wine (or other alcohol) causes the body to expel 800 to 1,000ml of water. That's four times as much liquid lost as gained, which explains the heavy traffic to the loos in bars and restaurants.

No wonder that the morning after heavy drinking, the body sends a message to replenish its water supply, usually manifested in a mouth that's so dry it feels as though it's been stuffed with cotton wool. "Headaches also result from dehydration as the body's organs try to make up for their own water loss by stealing water from the brain," Wilson says. "This makes the brain decrease in size and pull on the membranes that connect the brain to the skull." Hence those carpenters.

There's a third effect of dehydration. "Frequent peeing expels salts and potassium that are necessary for proper nerve and muscle function," Wilson explains. "When levels of these get too low, headaches, fatigue and nausea can result."

Withdrawal

"Tremors and sweating – both common features of hangovers – are due to alcohol withdrawal," says Jonathan Chick, honorary professor in health sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh and medical adviser to Drinkaware. "The brain adapts even in the course of one evening of drinking and is then left in a withdrawal state for the next 24 hours. That's why some people swear by a hair of the dog – another alcoholic drink – to cure their hangover."

This method merely postpones the inevitable, he says, although there is a school of thought that it may mitigate the worst symptoms.



Other causes

Over-consumption of alcohol can induce hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), which converts into light-headedness and general weakness, Chick says.

A few too many glasses of whatever your tipple is can also produce inflammation, which in turn causes the white blood cells to flood the bloodstream with molecules called cytokines – the same molecules released when you get the flu. The result is headaches and nausea, as well as lethargy which encourages us to stay in bed, thereby freeing up the body's energy for use by the white blood cells in combating the invader.

Even the noise levels of the environment in which you drank can influence a hangover, Chick says. "People's hearing when they drink becomes slightly dulled, which is why they tend to raise their voices and the music gets turned up. Overall exposure to high decibels becomes common and definitely contributes to morning-after headaches."

The depressive nature of alcohol is also significant, certainly in contributing to the emotional self-doubting, over-anxious component of hangovers. You might feel happy while you drink, but alcohol works much like diazepam – ultimately a downer, not helped by the plummeting blood-sugar levels that zap your energy when you've finished drinking.

Finally, there's the fact that alcohol breaks down the body's store of glycogen in the liver. Lack of this key energy source is at least partly responsible for the weakness, fatigue and lack of co-ordination the next morning.



Mine's worse than yours

In general, darker drinks – think red wine and whisky – contain a much higher level of toxins called congeners (by-products of fermentation) than white wine and clear spirits such as vodka, gin and rum. "More expensive brands tend to have fewer congeners," Derbyshire adds.

Habitually heavy drinkers tend to get milder hangovers. Meanwhile, women who drink the same amount as men tend to suffer more. It's partly to do with body size, but also because women have lower levels of enzymes and glutathione, which means it takes longer for their bodies to break down the alcohol. "The older you get, the more severe your hangovers become," Khemka adds. "The body is more susceptible to toxins and less able to produce the enzymes needed to deal with them."

Genes matter, too, he says. "Up to 70 per cent of people of oriental origin have a variant, less efficient form of ethanol dehydrogenase, an enzyme necessary for alcohol processing. "Many feel flushed and drunk very quickly."



Prevention

"Most people think of a fry-up as a cure, but slower absorption of alcohol – and therefore the effects of too much of it – can be achieved by eating a meal before you start drinking," Wilson says. Fat is particularly efficient at preventing absorption, which is why some people in the Mediterranean drink a teaspoon of olive oil before drinking. At the very least, have a glass of milk. Multivitamins can help, too, preparing the body for the depletion of vitamins that you'll experience later when frequently urinating.

"Stay well-hydrated during the day to prepare for your night out," Derbyshire advises. "Having a bottle of water at hand is a great way to hydrate on the move."

Have a glass of water with every drink you order, she adds. But limit fizzy drinks as the gas bubbles stimulate the gastric sphincter to open and facilitate gastric emptying. It's why fizzy alcohol such as champagne really does "go straight to the head". Avoid salty snacks, too, as these make you more likely to drink more alcohol.

Just before bed after a heavy night out, Koreans have a tradition of downing a bowl of water with honey. The idea is to head off the hypoglycaemia, as well as hydrate. It's not a bad theory, but if you suspect your beer goggles may hinder the search for the honey pot, it's still worth consuming buckets of water.



Cure

First, the bad news: there is no miracle hangover cure. The stumbling block for inventing one is research. Lab tests with cell samples or animals are easy enough, but clinical trials with humans raise both practical and ethical dilemmas. But there's no hard evidence they really work, certainly for all symptoms, Emma Derbyshire insists.

That said, certain painkillers have been found to be more effective than others when it comes to hangovers. Aspirin, for instance, is both a non-caffeinated pain reliever and a type of anti-inflammatory known as a prostaglandin inhibitor. High levels of prostaglandin have been linked to hangover severity. However, it is not gentle on the stomach, so avoid it if you've been vomiting or you haven't eaten.

Herbal compounds have become increasingly popular for hangovers. These include ingredients such as milk thistle, guava leaf and ginseng, which aim to boost biochemicals that help the body to deal with toxins. But again, the evidence is scant, with the exception of milk thistle, which has been proven to protect cells from alcohol damage.

Water goes a long way to speeding up the healing process. If you can stomach it, add salt and sugar to it to replace the sodium and glycogen lost the night before. Fruit juice is also good – the sugar helps to increase the body's energy, while the vitamins and nutrients can help to replace those depleted the night before due to alcohol's diuretic effect.

Bananas and kiwi fruit can both restore potassium to your body which has been lost to alcohol's diuretic effect. Power drinks help in the same way. Meanwhile, eggs contain large amounts of cysteine, which can mop up left-over toxins.

Avoid coffee – it will further dehydrate you – and remember that eating fried or fatty foods will probably just irritate your stomach further.

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015