3 January 2013

Hangovers: what are they & can we avoid them?

With Christmas and New Years over, many of us will be looking back over the festive periods to remember the glittering decorations that adorned our homes, opening our presents, spending time with our loved ones and indulging in rich, expensive foods. And of course, no memories of the Christmas holidays are complete without those of the hangover and it's safe to say that many of us will have just as vivid memories of times spent inebriated and of those nursing the unpleasant headaches and tender stomachs that inevitably followed a night's heavy drinking. The hangover is unarguably the bane of many of our celebrations and often leads to promises of “never again”. 

Of course, there always is an again and we all know full well that we’re not fooling anyone when we make that particular promise. The call to drink when we're enjoying ourselves is just too strong! So, we will all drink again and will all suffer for it again. Yet despite knowing to expect a hangover the next morning, do we really know what one is? 

The British National Health Service (NHS) recommends that men should not regularly consume more than 3-4 units of alcohol per day and women should not regularly consume more than 2-3 units. By 'regularly', the NHS means drinking these amounts on most (more than four) days of the week.

The answer to this question is in the properties of ethanol, the alcohol present in drinks, itself. Basically, ethanol is a powerful diuretic drug (like those discussed in the earlier post: 'Coca Cola: Christmas in the toilet'), and dehydrates us by making our body absorb less water. As our body becomes dehydrated and less begin to lose water, the cells that form it shrink and contract – leading to severe problems for the brain! 

This is because the human brain is surrounded by three thin membranes that are collectively known as the meninges. Thus, as we become dehydrated and the cells in these membranes shrink, the meninges contracts and squeezes our brain. It is this squeezing effect that is responsible (predominantly) for the headache we suffer the next morning and, obviously, the more we drink, the more dehydrated we become so the brain is squeezed more and we have a worse headache for it! 

Furthermore, this squeezing effect is also slightly responsible for any memories we may have lost, working in conjunction with the disruptive effects that ethanol has on the normal activities of the brain’s neurotransmitters (which leads to the associated behavioural changes and loss of coordination and response speed that are also experienced when drinking alcohol). And, as the brain is squeezed, it compresses the areas of our brain that deal with the formation and storage of memory - impairing its blood flow. This means that these areas work less much efficiently than they do normally and we end up with ‘holes’ in the night’s events when we look back on it. 

Whereas dehydration is responsible for our headaches, it is not the cause of the feeling of nausea that is also associated with hangovers. This feeling is due to another of ethanol’s particular properties, in that it is one of the few chemicals to be absorbed straight into our bodies through our stomach lining (paracetamol is another, which is why the drug alleviates pain so quickly). As well as meaning that alcohol affects us very quickly, particularly on an empty stomach, large amounts of ethanol passing through the stomach lining can leave it feeling sore and inflamed – which is also what causes the stomach ulcers that are a common symptom of long-term alcohol abuse! 

Fairly obviously then, if our stomachs are sore then they are not going to be very welcoming of food – particularly those that are heard to digest. Furthermore, vomiting the night before (which is actually beneficial for the body as it’s a protect reflex it uses to expel ethanol once it knows that much more is being absorbed than can be broken down safely), would make the feeling worse as it could itself damage the stomach lining and leave the stomach muscles strained and fatigued. 

As well as due to ethanol, the feeling of illness and lethargy experienced in hangovers are also caused by impurities in the drinks themselves, which are a result from the brewing or fermenting process. These impurities affect the body in many different ways and often require investments of large amounts of energy to break them down (which is why you should avoid mixing drinks). Due to the nature by which these impurities are created, different drinks contain different culprit chemicals. So your body might be coping, say, with those present in your red wine, but when you switch to whiskey later, it will have to start synthesising different enzymes to break the new chemicals in the whiskey down. As there are only so many enzymes that can be made at any one time (and a finite allocation of resources to use), the body ends up not producing enough enzymes to cope with either of the chemicals – meaning of course, that your hangover will be much worse! 

And so, now that you have a fair understanding of what hangovers are you might want to know whether or not they're possible to avoid. Sadly, they're not – not unless you cease drinking anyway, which let’s face it, isn't going to happen and seems a little excessive... But hangovers are possible to minimise, with surprisingly little effort. 

  1. Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Eating a large meal of foods that are high in carbohydrates, such as pasta- or rice-based dishes, before you begin drinking will absorb some of the alcohol and so slow the rate it passes into your bloodstream. Likewise, drinking full-cream milk or eating high fat foods beforehand are beneficial since fat actually inhibits alcohol absorption, so less will be absorbed into your system. 
  2. Avoid ‘dark’ drinks. As a general rule, darker beverages such as red wine, brandy and whiskey, contain more of the contaminants discussed above so will harder for your body to process. Instead, try drinking clear drinks like white wine, vodka and gin. 
  3. If you're out and about, avoid buying ‘rounds’. Everyone drinks at different rates and have their own limits and so, by drinking rounds, you are having to match your own consumption to those around you (and let’s face it, the quickest drinkers always pressurise others to hurry up so “we can get the next round in”), which may be more than you can handle or want to drink that night. 
  4. Stop drinking early. Usually, we drink to get drunk. So when we are finally drunk, we've normally got a lot of surplus alcohol in our stomachs’ that has yet to be absorbed. If you take this into consideration and stop drinking once you've reached your limit (or at least slow down), your body will have longer before the morning to have cleared the alcohol from your system and your hangover will be less severe as the result. 
  5. Drink as much water as you can before bed and take a bottle of water with you. This way, you’re drinking water that will not only dilute the alcohol left in your stomach and system, but will rehydrate some of the water that you've lost over the course of the night - alleviating the crushing pressure on your brain. 
  6. Try and force a ‘full-English breakfast’ down in the morning, or something similar (like McDonald's). As discussed earlier, fatty foods inhibit alcohol absorption so by eating foods such as sausage, bacon and eggs, you can stop the last ‘dregs’ of alcohol in your digestive tract from being absorbed. 
  7. Avoid drinking caffeine. Caffeine is another diuretic, so although they may make you feel better in the short term, drinks like tea and coffee will only make you more dehydrated. This will not only make your headache worse, but will prolong it as well. Instead, drink fruit juices (not from concentrates if possible), as the sugars and vitamins they contain will ‘refresh’ your body and help to restore its vitality.

If you're concerned about the effects and dangers of alcohol or want more information, click here to be taken to the NHS' alcohol help and guidance pages.

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