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What happens during a hangover?

The science behind the misery

Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health

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Hangovers are horrible. No matter how amazing a night out was, a hangover can suck the joy right out of all those great memories and leave you feeling nauseated, dehydrated, exhausted and generally out of it. Not to mention the horrendous pounding in your head!

What symptoms can a hangover cause?

  • Low mood/feeling down
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Intense cravings for fatty, sugary and processed food
  • Intense thirst, no matter how much you drink
  • Exhaustion
  • Shakiness
  • Sensitivity to light and noise

What happens in our body during a hangover?

  • Hormonal havoc. Believe it or not, alcohol actually affects neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine. It even affects histamine, a chemical which the body releases whenever you come into contact with a substance you are allergic to. This disruption in neurotransmitters can negatively affect your mood and cause you to feel ‘down’ the day after a heavy drinking session.
  • Sleep disruption. Alcohol interferes with sleep quality, in particular REM sleep. REM sleep is the period of sleep where you dream and it is also supposed to be one of the most important stages. So you’ll likely feel wrecked the day after, even if you’ve slept for 12 hours straight!
  • Stomach irritation. Alcohol can irritate the lining of your stomach and increase stomach acid. This is what causes that horrible feeling of nausea and stomach pain.
  • Dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it increases urine output. Therefore you pee more. If you pee more, your body will simply increase your thirst (it’s clever that way!) to try and replace the lost fluid. Dehydration can further lead to electrolyte imbalances. So your body can get low on important substances such as sodium and potassium. This is part of the reason you may crave crisps or salty foods like sausages the morning after.
  • Widening of blood vessels in the head. Just as painful as it sounds, but this widening certainly contributes to the morning after headaches! It also seems to contribute to light sensitivity.
  • Low blood sugar. Some people are more sensitive to this effect than others. Basically, alcohol generally lowers glucose levels in the blood and can also deplete the stored sugar in the liver. Some peoples' bodies just make more sugar to compensate, but not everyone can, and so you may find yourself dealing with low blood sugar symptoms like intense hunger, cravings, shakiness, weakness and headaches. If you are diabetic or if you know that you have a tendency to low blood sugar, you need to be mindful of this effect.
  • Toxic by-products. As alcohol is metabolised, it breaks down into various by-products. Some people can clear these by-products quickly and efficiently, while others cannot. Eek!

Top five hangover remedies

There is no end of hangover remedies out there.  A quick google search will yield hundreds of potential remedies, from the well-known cures to the outright crazy ones. Some remedies, such as eating a proper meal before you start drinking, are best done before you hit the bar, but here are our top five for the morning after.

  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Orange juice, water or even something like Lucozade will do the trick. As strange as it sounds, some people even add a small amount of sea salt to their juice. This helps to replenish electrolyte stores. If you are feeling nauseated, hot ginger tea is a great remedy too.  Go easy on the caffeine though, it will just dehydrate you further. Sorry!
  • Good food. You may not feel like solid food, but if you do, eggs are a great choice, along with orange juice and bananas. Eggs contain a type of amino acid called cysteine which helps to break down alcohol by-products, and orange juice and bananas contain potassium, which you may be low on after your hard night. Be careful if you crave stodgy food though, your delicate tummy may not be able to handle it.
  • Hot baths. Some people find that the steam acts as a detox and helps to ease their hangover. A hot shower would follow the same principle, though it probably wouldn’t be as relaxing.
  • Walking in the fresh air. Walking outside is probably the last thing you want to do when you have a hangover. However, the fresh air can help a lot by increasing circulation and blood flow to the brain.
  • Vitamin C or multivitamin tablets. A glass of the fizzy stuff should help to set you right, since these products work by topping up your depleted vitamin stores. You can get these soluble vitamins in most chemists and supermarkets.
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Published Feb­ru­ary 26th2013
Last updated June 22nd2018
Tags alcohol drugs hangover
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