Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with alcohol knows what a hangover is like. Typical symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to light and sounds, poor sleep, thirst and dry mouth, fatigue and weakness, inability to concentrate, anxiety, depression, irritability, shakiness, and rapid heartbeat. A hangover can make for a terrible night’s sleep and a terrible next day. What actually happens in your body when you’re hungover? And is there any way to prevent it?
The Effects of a Hangover
A hangover may be more of an umbrella term for a variety of problems alcohol can cause the morning after. Some people feel certain effects more than others. It depends on what you drink, how much, and your own unique chemistry. Some of the contributing factors include dehydration, stomach irritation, inflammation, hypoglycemia, expanding blood vessels, sleep disruption, and congeners.
Dehydration is common after drinking. Alcohol causes you to urinate more, leading to dehydration. Dehydration can lead to headaches, dizziness, and thirst, although headaches can also be caused by expanding blood vessels. When you wake up with a sticky mouth and can barely get to the bathroom without falling over, dehydration is likely to blame. This is also what makes you bloated after a night of heavy drinking. Your body starts retaining water and you feel fat and puffy.
However, anyone who has tried to drink plenty of water before bed and still awoken with a hangover knows there’s more to the story. Heavy drinking can also cause inflammation, which is probably responsible for the depression, fatigue, loss of appetite, and inability to concentrate. Alcohol also interferes with digestion. It increases stomach acid and keeps your stomach from emptying. This is responsible for the array of gastrointestinal problems you are likely to experience after drinking.
Other Health Problems Associated with Alcoholism
Hypoglycemia, or a drop in blood sugar, is likely responsible for many symptoms of hangovers. Alcohol causes a spike in insulin, just like sugar, and it also delays the process by which your body returns blood sugar levels to normal. Low blood sugar can cause fatigue, weakness, shakiness, irritability, headaches, dizziness, and sometimes seizures. Sweet drinks or drinking while eating something sweet may make the drop in blood sugar even worse.
Congeners are chemicals found in various kinds of alcohol, especially dark liquors like brandy and bourbon, and in red wine. These chemicals are the many different byproducts of fermentation and are largely responsible for each drink’s distinctive taste. They can also make hangovers worse. One study found participants were ten times more likely to feel hungover when they drank bourbon, which is loaded with congeners, instead of vodka, which has very few congeners.
The only sure way to avoid a hangover is to not drink. Even drinking vodka on a full stomach can cause dehydration, digestive problems, low blood sugar, dilated blood vessels, inflammation, and poor sleep–any of which can ruin your morning. If frequent hangovers are a problem, it’s probably a good idea to take a break from drinking. If you can’t take a break, consider getting help.
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