Hangovers: More complex than just a headache

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September 4, 2007

10:08 AM

As another stressful semester here at the College commences, the great escape of the weekend party is ushered in. While a good party may be just what the doctor ordered to relieve academic anxiety, the hangover the next morning may leave you crying for one.

p. Hangovers have been documented in civilization since Biblical times, but are still relatively misunderstood by scientists, doctors and those who experience them. In fact, on the whole, alcohol’s effects on the brain and body are still significantly understudied.
According to Scientific American, 75 percent of people who consume alcohol to the point of intoxication will incur a hangover, which is usually characterized by headache, nausea, vomiting, thirst, tremors, dizziness, fatigue and muscle cramps. Other effects of a hangover that are less overt include: a decrease in occupational, cognitive and visual/spatial skills, tachycardia (increased heart rate) and blood pressure changes.

p. The causes and mechanisms of hangovers are still in great debate, but there are several established truths. Hangovers seem to be caused by a combination of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), dehydration, acetaldehyde intoxication and vitamin B12 deficiency.
During the metabolism of drinking alcohol (ethanol), NADH (an important coenzyme in cells) production increases. Alcohol is metabolized through the enzymes alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase, and during this process NADH can build up and slow down glucogenesis in the liver, which causes hypoglycemia.

p. As liver enzymes break down ethanol, acetaldehyde is created, which is mildly toxic and is possibly responsible for hangover symptoms like headache, nausea and vomiting.

p. Symptoms such as sensitivity to sound and light are suspected to be caused by the removal of the depressive effect of alcohol on the brain. The alteration of cytokine (a group of proteins and peptides that orchestrates the immune system’s response) production can also potentially explain hangover symptoms.

p. Hangover severity is closely linked to antidiuretic hormone concentration, which is responsible for controlling frequency of urination. Consumption of alcohol once the intoxication level has been reached inhibits the effect of the antidiuretic hormone on the kidneys, thus causing excess urination and dehydration. Even as a person’s blood alcohol content decreases, dehydration will continue as the antidiuretic hormone increases, causing water retention during a hangover. For this reason, consumption of liquids during a hangover can help to ease, but not cure, it.

p. Certain by-products of alcohol fermentation called congeners can increase the frequency and severity of a hangover. Dark liquors, like whiskey, which are high in congeners, tend to cause more frequent hangovers.

p. A study conducted by L.F. Chapman in 1970 determined that 33 percent of patients who consumed 1.5 g/kg of their body weight of bourbon (high in congeners) experienced a hangover, but only 3 percent of those who consumed the same dose of vodka (low in congeners) experienced a hangover.

p. Cures for the dreaded hangover are as complex as the scientific reasons for them. Many home remedy methods of treating hangovers are ineffective, and some can actually cause more harm than good.

p. Foods and beverages with sugar can help to overcome hypoglycemia and dehydration, but cannot cure a hangover by themselves.

p. Using an anti-inflammatory painkiller to get rid of the headache should be done with caution because aspirin can be a stomach irritant and acetaminophen taken in conjunction with alcohol can amplify harmful effects on the liver.

p. While the science behind a hangover may be quite complex and misunderstood, there are certain things scientists suggest can help to prevent the formation of a hangover.

p. There are several medicines in development that could potentially be hangover preventatives, but these have not seen great success in experimental trials.

p. By far, the most suggested way of preventing a hangover is to imbibe ample amounts of water while consuming alcohol in order to prevent dehydration.

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