by Greg Eriksen
Editor’s Note: Lifebeat previously published an article called The Science of a Hangover: Homecoming Edition, but here is a more in depth explanation of the theories behind why hangovers happen and why different alcohols lead to different hangovers.
The hangover: the price many of us pay to have a night out that we probably won’t remember. After a week of working hard, we celebrate on the weekend only to wake up on Sunday feeling miserable. We then proceed to struggle through the headaches, dizziness, and nausea with the help of coffee and Advil. Although the science behind hangovers is not completely understood, there are many contributing factors that help us understand why those awful Sundays occur. Furthermore, we may be able to reduce the effects of the hangover based on the alcohol we choose to drink!
Often the headaches and dizziness associated with a hangover come from being very dehydrated. Alcohol is a natural diuretic which works by decreasing the body’s anti-diuretic hormone. This hormone is responsible for the reabsorption of water. Therefore, when high levels of alcohol are consumed, we stop reabsorbing water, and thus have an increasing urge to pee. This effect explains why we all have so many untimely trips to the bathroom in one night! Consequently, the total fluid loss can give you painful headaches the next day.
Another contributing factor to the symptoms of a hangover is the result of ethanol (alcohol’s primary component) metabolism. Upon ethanol consumption, the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase converts ethanol and NAD+ to NADH and acetaldehyde. The high concentration of NADH inhibits gluconeogenesis: the generation of glucose. Essentially, the first step in the gluconeogenesis involves the conversion of NAD+ to NADH. However, with a high level of NADH already present due to ethanol consumption, this reaction is unfavourable, and therefore gluconeogenesis will not occur. The outcome can lead to low levels of blood sugar known as hypoglycemia. As a result, when an individual wakes up with a hangover, they may be hypoglycemic, which causes dizziness and nausea--sound familiar?
As I mentioned before, the metabolism of ethanol produces NADH as well as acetaldehyde. The latter of the two molecules is hypothesised to be the primary reason we all experience hangovers. Research has shown that acetaldehyde is 10-30 times as toxic as alcohol. In effect, we are introducing toxins into our bodies for fun. The toxic effects of acetaldehyde may include sweating, dizziness, and even memory impairment. Due to acetaldehyde’s high toxicity, our bodies are very efficient at converting it to a more stable compound known as acetate. However, drinking in mass consumption (much like what is done on homecoming) produces a lot of acetaldehyde, which allows its adverse effects to take place.
Although waking up with a hangover can be a common occurrence, the alcohol we choose to drink may influence the hangover’s intensity. Congeners are substances within alcohol that are formed during the fermentation process. They often contribute to the flavour of the beverage we choose to drink. However, they are also linked to the effects of hangovers. In a previous study, researchers decided to look into the effects of different alcohols on people. They gathered 95 healthy alcohol users and served them 3 different beverages on 3 different nights. The first night, all 95 individuals were given the same undisclosed alcohol to “acclimate” to drinking. On night two, they were given vodka or whiskey with a consumption that put them 3 times above the legal limit for driving. Finally, on the third night, they were given a placebo drink with no alcohol in it. Once the study was done, the participants who drank whisky reported worse hangover symptoms than those who drank vodka. Whisky also contains considerably more congeners than vodka. Furthermore, research published in the British Medical Journal discovered a connection between hangover severity and amount of congeners. Accordingly, the amount of congeners for each alcohol has been recorded, with brandy, red wine, and whisky having considerably more congeners than vodka, gin, and white wine. Interestingly enough, the drinks that give the worst headaches tend to be darker and more flavourful. Furthermore, drinks that include carbonation tend to absorb faster than distilled drinks, and ultimately get you more drunk. Therefore, it seems that the best drink to buy in the club is also the cheapest one: vodka water.
Overall, no matter the facts, many of us will still choose to drink on a night out regardless of the effects in the morning. In a sense, drinking on that Saturday night is just borrowing happiness from Sunday. However, we can help ourselves survive the hangover by choosing the right kinds of alcohol! There is nothing wrong with saving a little bit of money and drinking vodka water instead of another jäger bomb!