Feeling hungover after a night out? Here’s why

Even after one evening of drinking, the body is left in a withdrawal state for 24 hours

The bad news is that there is no miracle hangover cure. The stumbling block for inventing one is research.

The bad news is that there is no miracle hangover cure. The stumbling block for inventing one is research.

 

You can’t say we didn’t warn you (What does binge drinking do to your body?). If you are feeling hungover (dehydrated? demotivated? depressed?) after a day of binge drinking, this is the “why” and “how to recover” on the day after.

Being hung over is a place no one wants to be. The literal translation of the Swedish word for hangover is “kicked from behind”. The French describe themselves as waking with a “wooden mouth” or “hair ache”; while the Danes have “carpenters in the forehead”. The Germans and the Dutch say they have a, presumably wailing, “tomcat”. But why is it you feel so bad?

Dehydration

One 250ml glass of wine (or other alcohol) causes the body to expel 800 to 1,000ml of water. That’s four times as much liquid lost as gained, which explains the heavy traffic to the toilets in drinking establishments. Urinating this frequently expels salts and potassium, which are necessary for nerve and muscle function. When the levels get low the results are headaches, nausea and fatigue.

So, it’s no surprise that the morning after, the body sends a message to re-hydrate which is usually manifested in a very, very dry mouth. Headaches are the body’s response to dehydration as organs try to make up for their own water loss by stealing water from the brain. This makes the brain decrease in size and pull on the membranes that connect the brain to the skull. This is where the carpenters come in.

Withdrawal

Even after just one evening of drinking, the brain adapts and the body is left in a withdrawal state for the following 24 hours. Enter “the fear”. The tremors and sweating are due to alcohol withdrawal.

Other causes

Over-consumption of alcohol can induce hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), which converts into light-headedness and general weakness.

Over-consumption can also produce inflammation, which in turn causes the white blood cells to flood the bloodstream with molecules called cytokines - the same molecules released when you get the flu. The result is headaches and nausea, as well as lethargy which encourages us to stay in bed, freeing up the body’s energy for use by the white blood cells in combating the invader.

The depressive nature of alcohol is also significant - back to “the fear” - and it can contribute to the emotional self-doubting, over-anxious component of hangovers. You might feel happy while you drink, but alcohol is ultimately a downer, not helped by the plummeting blood-sugar levels that zap your energy when you’ve finished drinking.

Finally, there’s the fact that alcohol breaks down the body’s store of glycogen in the liver. Lack of this key energy source is at least partly responsible for the weakness, fatigue and lack of co-ordination the next morning.

And the cure?

The bad news is that there is no miracle hangover cure. The stumbling block for inventing one is research. Clinical trials with humans raise both practical and ethical dilemmas in investigating this area, so there is little hard evidence about what really works.

That said, certain painkillers have been found to be more effective than others when it comes to hangovers. Aspirin, for instance, is both a non-caffeinated pain reliever and a type of anti-inflammatory known as a prostaglandin inhibitor. High levels of prostaglandin have been linked to hangover severity. However, it is not gentle on the stomach, so avoid it if you’ve been vomiting or you haven’t eaten.

Herbal compounds have become increasingly popular the morning after. Ingredients include milk thistle, guava leaf and ginseng, which aim to boost biochemicals that help the body to deal with toxins. Evidence is scant for them all, with the exception of milk thistle which has been proven to protect cells from alcohol damage.

Water goes a long way to speeding up the healing process. If you can stomach it, add salt and sugar to it to replace the sodium and glycogen lost the night before. Fruit juice is also good - the sugar helps to increase the body’s energy, while the vitamins and nutrients can help to replace those depleted the night before due to alcohol’s diuretic effect.

Bananas and kiwis can restore potassium, which has been lost to alcohol’s diuretic effect. Power drinks help in the same way. Eggs contain large amounts of cysteine, which can mop up left-over toxins.

Avoid coffee - it will further dehydrate you - and remember that eating fried or fatty foods might just irritate your stomach.

Distinctly Irish ways of describing a hangover:

“I’m in the horrors”. You don’t want to be there.

“I’m as sick as a small hospital”. According to many reports, you don’t want to be there either.

“I’m in Lego”. Sure aren’t you in bits?

“I’m in a heap”. At home, hopefully.

“My throat is drier than Gandhi’s flip flop.” Lovely.

“I had a bad pint”. Did you read our article on binge drinking?

“I’ve got the fear”. Indeed you do, and that might not be the worst thing.

“I’m in rag order.” No comment.

“I’m dying”. You aren’t.

What’s your favourite way to describe a hangover? Tweet @IT_HealthPlus #Fridayfeeling

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