The science of hangovers: What causes those headaches, and how you can make them better

Put that mug of black coffee down - it's not going to help

Simon Heptonstall
Tuesday 22 October 2013 12:30

Resting my head on the rim of a toilet while last night's half-digested kebab made its return was not exactly the prettiest picture for my housemates to walk in the bathroom to see at 11am, but that pack of paracetamol I had gulped down was having no effect on my headache and, at that moment in time, I really didn't care.

Looking back, it was quite naive to think that I could handle 12 pints of lager and be able to "walk it off" in the morning. I, like many of you, have barely survived fresher's week; I woke up every morning of seven consecutive days out of pocket, feeling like someone had placed my head in a blender, and desperately trying to work out exactly how I got the mysterious cuts and bruises which covered my body.

So what happens within your body on the morning after to cause such horrendous pain? Maybe if we knew what we were doing to ourselves, we could take certain preventive action (without stopping the nights out)?

Water retention

Alcohol is a drug. This means that, when you ingest it, it alters the chemical balances within your body to create a physiological effect - you get drunk. Once alcohol enters the bloodstream it begins to change certain processes. Firstly, it inhibits the production of the hormone "vasopressin" from the brain, this means that water is sent directly to the bladder instead of being absorbed back into the body; this is why you start to need the toilet a lot more once you’ve had a drink.

It is also part of the reason that your body becomes dehydrated, making your hangover worse. You might not realise it but, when you’re bopping away on the dancefloor to your favourite song, you sweat a lot and, as well as losing fluids, you lose necessary minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium.

Smoking makes your headache worse, too

You may have noticed that, in most night clubs, the smoking areas are very heavily populated throughout the whole evening as a lot of people will tend to have a few cigarettes on a night out.

For those of you who have more than one or two, you’re actually at risk of giving yourself mild nicotine poisoning and making your hangover a lot worse. There are already a large amount of toxins in your system from all of the alcohol you have had, and now your body also has to cope with trying to clear your system of the nicotine that’s in there. Did you know that if the nicotine from three or four cigarettes were absorbed at once, it would kill a healthy adult?

The morning after

What's worst, though, is what your body actually goes through the next morning. Due to your having expelled a huge amount of your bodily fluids into the toilets (and probably on a back street on your way home) your body is craving water. This is the point where most people grab a cup of black coffee, unknowingly dehydrating themselves more. Your body then "steals" the water from your brain which causes it to decrease in size and pull on the membranes which bond it to your skull. Not surprisingly, this causes a lot of pain.

Eggs is eggs

If you live in Las Vegas, there is a specialist service called ‘Hangover Heaven’ which will connect you to an IV-drip and pump the required minerals back into your body. As for us Brits, it seems that the best route is to grab a plate of eggs, as they are proven to help in the breakdown of the toxins in your body. You should also get a bunch of bananas, as they will replace the potassium which has been lost, drink plenty of water to combat the dehydration, and drink fruit juices, as they increase the rate of metabolism and therefore speed up the time it takes to get rid of those nasty toxins.

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