“Hangovers are my favorite part of drinking,” said no one ever.
I hate to bad-mouth one of my besties, but, sometimes, they can be a real bitch. Yep, that’s right––I’m talking about you, alcohol. You’ve been with me through some of the best times in my life, but you’ve also been the cause of sooooooo many terrible ones. Then again, are you really to blame? Yes, it turns out. YES, you most definitely are.
Most of us have experienced the ill effects of alcohol. From bad decisions to bad hangovers, we can all relate. But, have you ever wondered what it is that causes those massive headaches, that gag–worthy nausea, and your zombie–like complexion? The Mayo Clinic says that your hangover begins when your blood–alcohol level bottoms out and falls below zero. Allow me to break it down for you.
The nasty headache that fades but never fully leaves, even after an extra dose of Advil? It may be due to alcohol’s effects on your blood vessels. Alcohol initially causes vasodilation, or a widening of your blood vessels, which can lead to a headache. Even higher levels of alcohol can cause vasoconstriction, or a narrowing of your blood vessels, which also causes headaches and other medical complications.
No matter how much sleep we get, we always wake up feeling tired, both mentally and physically, after drinking, right? This could be because alcohol is a known sleep disturber (not to be confused with shit disturber––another one of its glorious effects). It interferes with our circadian rhythm, a major contributor to our diurnal clock (the thing that makes us sleep at night and wake in the morning). It also disrupts our REM cycle, which, as you may know, is when we sleep most deeply.
Dry mouth and dry heaves? Dehydration is one of the main causes of a hangover. Alcohol inhibits the production and release of vasopressin, a hormone that promotes water reabsorption and decreases the frequency of urination. In other words, you can thank the lack of vasopressin your bloodstream for all those trips to the bathroom once you “break the seal.” Out with your urine goes––in addition to your common sense––all the good (or, water-soluble) vitamins and nutrients your body works so hard to store. An imbalance in electrolytes is another reason you wake up feeling dizzy and thirsty, plagued with dry, wrinkled skin, and the feeling that the Gobi Desert has taken up residence in your mouth. This is why we see so many vitamin supplements geared to hangovers.
But wait, there’s more.
Let’s move on to your poor GI system, also known as gastrointestinal tract, which takes a lot of abuse from alcohol. After a night of drinking, we, quite literally, feel the effects from tip to tail. From esophageal reflux (heartburn) to the “burning ring of fire” at the other end our digestive tract, we pay a hefty price for our shenanigans! Alcohol decreases muscle tone and mobility, which results in issues such as reflux and diarrhea or constipation. Your body experiences an increase in acid production, which not only affects your rate and quality of digestion, but also irritates your stomach and intestinal lining, which can lead to acute, or even chronic, gastritis.
Alcohol can also deplete our immune system. According to Alcohol Research: Current Reviews (ARCR), alcohol disrupts our normal immune functions, which impair your body’s ability to defend against infections and pathogens that lead to illness and disease. Other studies show that once you start drinking, your immune-response cells spike, and not long after they’ve fallen to below your baseline (the level they were at before you started drinking), and immune cells known to impair immune function begin to appear in your body.
Alcohol–induced blood–sugar imbalance may be to blame for those feelings of irritability, fatigue and dizziness. Alcohol can affect your blood–sugar levels, which can lead to other hormone imbalances, causing complications and insulin–resistance for diabetics.
Can we really prevent or cure a hangover? In short, no. In long? NO!
Alcohol is considered a toxin in the body, so no matter our tolerance level, we will experience the physiological responses that come with drinking. That said, there are those who can drink more than others; some even experience a much milder hangover no matter how much they drink (we hate you, FYI). For those of us who aren’t so lucky, the following is a simple guideline for how to treat a hangover.
You’ve heard of “hair of the dog”? You may swear by it if you can stomach the smell of more booze, but it may or may not be beneficial. As I mentioned, hangover symptoms appear when our blood–alcohol content (BAC) dips below zero. So, introducing alcohol back into our system the next day raises our BAC, which wards off our hangover––but only until we stop drinking again and our level drops. Alcohol also produces endorphins that hide that hungover feeling, so having another drink is really just a band-aid approach. Most experts DO NOT recommend it as it just perpetuates the cycle.
so many companies have hangover drinks, pills, packets, patches, and even clinic-administered IV bags
Another tool for your belt is rehydrating. As you know, alcohol causes massive dehydration, so it stands to reason that rehydrating relieves a hangover. This is why so many companies have hangover drinks, pills, packets, patches, and even clinic-administered IV bags, all packed with vitamins, minerals and nutrients that promise to replace all that was lost during last night’s booze fest (self-respect not included). Of all the hangover “cures,” IV therapy is the most effective, as it delivers a powerful punch directly to your bloodstream, bypassing the second-pass metabolism phenomenon.
While some are hooked up to an IV line, others are pounding back McDonalds. Many swear that greasy, carb-heavy meals help alleviate a hangover, and after a night out, the body does need fuel for proper brain and body function. A decrease in your blood–sugar level means your body lacks one of its main sources of fuel (glucose), which leaves it struggling to function properly. Carbs are quickly broken down as sugars, which makes your blood–sugar level rise once again. Carbs for the win!
Here’s another useful tidbit: choose your type of alcohol wisely as there are some that can actually make your hangover worse because of their concentration of congeners. What are congeners? They’re the toxic byproducts produced during alcohol’s fermentation and distillation process––methanol, acetone, acetaldehyde, esters and tannins, to name a few. None of these will be listed on the label, however, so how do you know which poison to pick? A general rule of thumb is that the darker the alcohol, the higher the concentration of congeners. For example, bourbon, whiskey and red wine have higher levels than their clearer counterparts––think gin, rum and vodka, which have few to none. Vodka also for the win!
Even though I pride myself on being healthy, I must say this: Life is short. If you can fill your life with more joy, laughter and fun memories, I say go for it––with or without alcohol (but, call me if you wanna hang with a drink in hand).