Last night was awesome and you don't regret a minute of it. This morning is a different story, and now you're tired, irritated, nauseous, and absolutely miserable. You're hungover, my friend. But what is a hangover, exactly?
As you already know, a hangover is a collection of signs and symptoms linked to a recent bout of heavy drinking. Although it varies from person to person, a hangover usually involves a headache, nausea, tiredness, and dehydration. The alcohol hangover develops when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) returns to zero and is characterized by a feeling of general misery that may last more than 24 hours.
These unpleasant feelings from a hangover are generally attributed to a combination of dehydration, toxic impurities found in some alcoholic beverages (congeners), and toxic byproducts of alcohol metabolism.
Hangover symptoms are closely tied to how efficiently the body breaks down alcohol and its byproducts. Approximately 75 percent of those who drink alcohol to intoxication will experience the potentially horrendous post-alcohol pain. Hangovers can leave you struggling to concentrate, feeling irritable and sensitive to light – not a good combination if you were planning to make the most out of our day or not spend it in bed.
And you are definitely not alone. Market researcher Euromonitor estimates that there are 2.6 billion hangovers in the U.S. each year. According to a 2000 study, hangovers cost the economy about $148 billion annually due to missing work and poor job performance.1 And believe or not, most of this cost is incurred by the light-to-moderate drinker (like most of us). In addition, there are many different hangovers causes including:
- Genetics - Research has shown that genetics account for nearly half of the reason why one person experiences a hangover and another person doesn't, after drinking the same amount of alcohol.2
- Smoking worsens a hangover - Recent research has confirmed that your hangover will be worse if you smoke when you drink. A study found that people who dragged on a cigarette or two while drinking alcohol were twice as likely to experience painful hangover symptoms than those who boozed without smoking.3
- You may be going through withdrawal - The shakiness, sweating, and sensitivity to light and sound that can accompany a hangover are also symptoms of withdrawal. There is a theory that hangover is a type of withdrawal from heavy drinking. The brain adapts even in the course of one evening of drinking and is then left in a withdrawal state for the next 24 hours. This puts your brain in a supersensitive state — lights are lighter, and sounds are louder. That's why some people swear by the “hair of the dog” – another alcoholic drink – to cure their hangover.
- Dehydration - The common pounding headache of an epic hangover is due to dehydration. The effects of alcohol vary from person to person, but in general, the less a person weighs the less alcohol it takes to cause dehydration.4 The brain loses much of this water, making it literally shrink, and causing the splitting pain in your head.
- Inflammation - Alcohol triggers an inflammatory response from your immune system. An imbalance of the immune system has been identified by scientists as a key factor in creating the dreaded hangover state.5 Hangover symptoms like nausea, headache, and fatigue have been suggested to be mediated by changes in the immune system.
You can avoid a hangover, not cure it
While the next day, magical hangover cures are constantly promoted online, there's no hangover pill you can take that's going to cure it completely, because no pill can address all the things an alcoholic beverage does to you. Not only does alcohol have many effects, but its metabolite acetaldehyde (a toxic byproduct) can be worse than alcohol and augments the damage. Additionally, the congeners (impurities in the drinks) affect hangover severity in many ways.
However, certain substances have been found to improve at least some of hangover symptoms. There is some evidence that prickly pear extract may combat inflammation involved in hangovers, according to a 2004 study in the Journal Archives of Internal Medicine.6
The amino acid N-acetylcysteine (NAC) was also studied and is thought to boost the production of the antioxidant glutathione and support more efficient alcohol metabolism while reducing oxidative damage to the body. It has been studied as a protective agent, rather than a quick-fix hangover cure.7
A herbal extract called Dihydromyricetin (DHM) has been used for centuries as an anti-alcohol herb and hangover cure in Asia. DHM has also demonstrated antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, hepatoprotective, and anti-hypertension properties.8
The remedies presented above may help, but it’s important to stress that the only way to completely avoid being hungover is to abstain from alcohol consumption. If you choose to consume alcohol, however, drink in moderation with adequate hydration.