Everything in moderation feels great—including alcohol. But we’re humans and rarely do we do anything in moderation. Drinking, for example, is something a lot of people enjoy. It’s considered fun, a way to take a temporary break from the struggles of adulthood. So when we have a little too much, we just learn to deal with a hangover the next day…but what is it exactly? What goes on in your body when you drink too much alcohol? Does everyone experience hangovers? And the most important question is: How do you make it go away?
What is a hangover?
Hangovers, scientifically known as veisalgia, happen when you consume too much alcohol. “Too much” is different for every person depending on someone weight and height. How often you drink is also a factor because your tolerance for alcohol could build if you drink regularly. Though there are a lot of theories why hangovers occur, the most common explanation is simply that when you drink too much alcohol—a diuretic—it causes dehydration: 1) because you pee more and 2) because when you’re drinking alcohol, you’re probably not drinking the same amount of water.
Another compelling scientific theory is that people get hangovers because drinking causes a buildup in a toxic compound called acetaldehyde. When the body tries to process alcohol, acetaldehyde is the byproduct, which is apparently even more toxic than the alcohol itself.
What are the common signs of a hangover?
The most common signs of a hangover are dehydration, fatigue, and headaches, but anyone who’s ever had a sever one knows it could get so much worse:
- Loss of appetite
- Sensitivity to light/sound
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle aches
- Feeling dizzy
- Difficulty sleeping
- General weakness
How come some people have hangovers but others don’t?
It’s unfair, huh? But here’s where genetics come into play. There are people who have a mutation in their genes for the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase; this converts alcohol into the toxic acetaldehyde more effectively. These people also have a mutation for the enzyme that performs the next metabolic step, which slows down the conversion of acetaldehyde into acetic acid; acetaldehyde builds up and causes that “drunk flush” we love so much, lol, which plays a role in the hangover you have the next day.
Women, who are typically smaller than men, are also more likely to experience hangovers. But men and women with the same body weight who drink the same amount of alcohol have the same chances of getting a hangover.
Do some types of alcohol cause hangovers more easily than others?
Do you know someone who always has a hangover when they drink gin but is completely fine when they have several glances of wine? Is that a thing? Basically, drinks that have more alcohol in a smaller volume are usually the culprits of your worst hangovers. Those shots you take when you just want to forget the world are way more dangerous than wine, beer, or mixed drinks—especially because you almost never just have one.
Certain drinks also have a higher level of “congeners,” a type of chemical produced during fermentation that contribute to hangovers. Dark liquors like whiskey and bourbon have more congeners than light-colored drinks like vodka. Some congeners also stay in the body even after you’ve flushed all the alcohol out of your system, leading to worse hangovers.
How can you prevent a hangover?
The most obvious answer is: Don’t drink alcohol. If drinking is something you genuinely enjoy doing, you don’t have to cut it out of your life completely. You could always control your consumption.
Before attending a social function where alcohol will be served, be sure to eat a proper meal. If you don’t want a hangover (and want to avoid puking your guts out), never drink on an empty stomach. Better yet, have a glass while eating but do it slowly. Contrary to popular belief, whatever you’re eating won’t absorb the alcohol, but it’ll help your body absorb the alcohol at a slower rate. To avoid dehydration, you can also drink more water.
How can you cure a hangover?
Unfortunately, there’s no magical cure to a bad hangover. All you can do is treat the symptoms. For example, if you have a headache, take an Advil. You should also avoid doing the “hair of the dog” trick, which basically involves drinking more to try and reverse the effects of a hangover—doesn’t work, awful idea. The only thing it does is get you drunk enough to forget your existing symptoms, which could temporarily “cure” you, but the pain will just come back eventually.
As simple as it sounds, the best way to really overcome a hangover is to just take it easy, rest, drink plenty of water, and eat foods that won’t turn your stomach. Some believe that greasy food will “soak up” the alcohol in your system but by the time you’re munching on pizza or those fries, all the alcohol would have left your system. The only benefit you’re getting from those fried carbs is comfort.
Do hangovers get worse with age?
To be honest, it’s common belief that when you’re younger, physical feats are easier. In theory, you’re more active, and your body is able to heal faster. But because the jury is still out on the science behind hangovers, it’s hard to say for sure. According to Dr. Richard Stephens, hangovers seem so much worse when you’re older because you’ve forgotten what they actually feel like: “Drinking alcohol tends to tail off during the 30s and 40s, which is when people are most likely to have responsibilities, such as [a] career and kids that take priority over regular heavy drinking.”
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