Hangovers

Your hangover will be worse if you sleep on the bathroom floor. Photo by Trevor Nelson.
Your hangover will be worse if you sleep on the bathroom floor. Photo by Trevor Nelson.

Even if you don’t wake up with a tiger in your bathroom, a missing tooth or someone else’s baby in your closet, almost every college student will deal with a hangover sooner or later.

This should go without saying, but Montana is the worst state in the nation for drinking and driving, so if you’ve drunk enough to have a hangover the next day, hand your keys over to someone else that night.

With the PSA out of the way, let’s explore some of the mechanisms behind a hangover (and, no, the green fairy you forgot to remove from your glass before taking a drink isn’t one of them). The medical term for a hangover is too good not to mention; it’s called veisalgia, from the Norwegian word for “uneasiness following debauchery” (kveis) and the Greek word for “pain” (algia).

There are a few different causes tied to the unpleasant side effects of a hangover. Hypoglycemia, an abnormally low glucose content in blood, contributes to the symptoms. Alcohol breaks down glycogen — essentially energy stored in the liver — into glucose, which is then lost from the body in urine.

Before conversion into harmless acetic acid, the ethanol in an alcoholic drink is converted into acetaldehyde, which is 10 – 30 times more toxic than ethanol and contributes to many hangover symptoms.

But perhaps the most important cause of a hangover is alcohol’s suppression of the creation of vasopressin, a hormone responsible for water retention in mammals. Without vasopressin, the kidneys send water directly to the bladder, where it’s excreted instead of re-absorbed.

Some studies indicate that drinking 250 milliliters of a standard alcoholic drink causes the body to expel nearly 1,000 milliliters of water. That’s four times as much lost as consumed. This phenomenon lends credence to the dorm-room legend of “breaking the seal.”

The morning after a binge, the body is usually dehydrated, which manifests itself in the form of a dry mouth. A headache often also results because the body’s organs desperately try to take up water and end up stealing it from the brain, causing the brain to physically shrink and pull on the membranes connecting it to the skull.

Furthermore, the diuretic effect of alcohol expels salts (like sodium and potassium) that are important for nerves and muscles.

Now that you know why your head is pounding and you can’t focus on studying for that microbiology exam, here are some measures you can take to relieve your symptoms:

  • Exercise: Raise your metabolic rate and help clear toxins associated with metabolizing alcohol.
  • Vitamin B: Take a vitamin B complex (usually including vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12, and folic acid). These vitamins play key roles in brain and nervous system functions and are depleted with drinking. The yeast naturally found in homebrew contains B vitamins, leading many homebrewers to claim their beers go easier on those who overindulge.
  • Eat simple foods: Eggs may help ease symptoms, and milk rehydrates you while supplying calcium and soothing your stomach.
  • Water: Drink enough water (or orange juice if your stomach can handle it) to replace what you lost.
  • Baking soda: Quell your stomach queasiness with a spoonful mixed with water.
  • Shower: Open up your pores and rinse off any toxins (and shame) you’ve excreted through your skin.

What can you do if you’re a proactive soul who knows he’s going to engage in a night of debauchery but still wants to function the next morning?

  • Drink water: Turns out, that age-old freshman advice is true. Alternate between a beer and a glass of water.
  • Don’t mix your alcohols: Different types of alcohols contain different kinds and concentrations of congeners, byproducts of fermentation that contribute to hangovers. The darker your drink (red wine, whiskey, dark beers), the more congeners it has. Carbonation in beer also speeds up alcohol absorption, so following a beer with a shot gives your body even less time to process the alcohol from the shot.
  • Don’t go diet: If you’re counting calories, mixing alcohol with a diet drink may sound like a good idea, but recent research shows that the sugar in regular sodas actually slows down alcohol absorption. Diet drinks may get you drunk quicker.
  • Vitamin B: Yes, this is on here twice. Try popping a vitamin B complex pill before binging.
  • Take it easy: Listen to the Eagles and don’t guzzle a lot of alcohol in a short timeframe.