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The Biomedical Engineering blog is the place for conversation and discussion about topics related to engineering principles of the medical field. Here, you'll find everything from discussions about emerging medical technologies to advances in medical research. The blog's owner, Chelsey H, is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.

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The Science Behind Hangovers

Posted December 18, 2012 4:10 PM by Chelsey H
Pathfinder Tags: alcohol drinking hangover science

I would like to touch on a topic that I know is near and dear to many to many of us…hangovers. I guess I could say hangover cures are often a weird mix of ritual, food, and actual medicine. Let's take a closer look at what a hangover is and next week we'll look at the best ways to get rid of it before you spend the day with your in-laws.


Image Credit: nukethefridge

Last year I wrote about how strawberries can help protect your stomach from the effects of alcohol. But that's more of a proactive approach and doesn't actually help prevent hangovers.

A hangover, formally known as veisalgia (which is from Norwegian for "uneasiness following debauchery" and the Greek word for pain) is caused by drinking too much alcohol. Although no one is totally sure what causes the hangover, the symptoms of a hangover are the direct effect of alcohol on the body's systems. They can also be caused by the withdrawal of alcohol from the body, the effects of metabolites produced when alcohol is consumed, other chemicals found in alcoholic beverages, behaviors associated with drinking, and personal characteristics of the drinker.

Image Credit:Sciartmag

Alcohol causes dehydration and electrolyte imbalance because it causes an increase in urine production. Ethanol (alcohol) is a diuretic and acts on the pituitary gland in the brain and stops the production of vasopressin, a homone that controls the re-absorption of water by the kidneys. This causes the bladder to fill up and expel more water than it takes in. Without this water your cells (including brain cells) start to shrivel. Additional fluid can be lost if the person vomits or has excesses sweating.

Gastrointestinal disturbances are caused by inflammation of the stomach lining and delayed stomach empting. Alcohol irritates the stomach and intestines, and produces fatty liver, gastric acid, and pancreatic and intestinal secretions. This irritation causes abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Consuming alcohol inhibits glucose production in the body and deletes the reserves of glucose stored in the liver. Since glucose is the main energy source of the brain, low blood sugar can produce symptoms of fatigue, weakness, and mood swings.

You've probably also noticed that you don't sleep well (even if you pass out) and you probably wake up with headache. Alcohol disrupts the body's daily temperature rhythm, nighttime secretion of growth hormones, and the release of cortisol, thereby making your sleep shorter and less satisfying. When you do wake up my your head is probably pounding do the vasodilation of the blood vessels in your brain.

Image Credit: Hellogiggles.com

Sounds pretty unpleasant right? Combine the alcohol with additional chemicals present in the drink and your genetics, and you have a recipe for a hangover.

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The Causes of a Hangover

What is the science behind a hangover?

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#1

Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/18/2012 9:50 PM

The dehydration one can get from mountain climbing mimics a hangover quite closely. In either case, the preventive is to drink plenty of water. One problem is forgetting to to do this after having tee many martoonis.

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#2

Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/18/2012 10:34 PM

Nice post. Milo

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#3

Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/18/2012 11:30 PM

Dehydration is a primary factor. As mentioned before , dehydration not only loses water, but many of the cellular salts in suspension . If one loses the water and salts through exercise, or just being out in the desert with no water, the Dehydration is a constant diminishing effect, whereas the alcohol induced effect is artificial, happens in a much shorter time frame, and does not allow the body to predict and adjust. That being said, I was always told, that when going out on a night of drinking, that after 3 beers, one should consume a glass of water in between drinks, for the rest of the evening--Following this program, you reduce the amount of alcohol, keep up your hydration, and reduce the hangover--You still must pay the Devil for loss of nutrients and sleep, but you will be functional. The worse part of hangovers is waiting for the damn things to go away, and they never stop reminding you of last night, (If you can still remember)--

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#4

Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/19/2012 7:28 AM

How about Vodka & Gatoraid?

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#5

Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/19/2012 7:29 AM

So what is everyone preventive measures or cure for a hangover?

Myself I have always practice on one of those trips to the john in the early morning to down a large glass of water with two Alka-Seltzer. Before going going back to bed.

plop plop fizz fizz oh what a relief it is!

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#6
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Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/19/2012 7:55 AM

Drink water with the alcohol, a couple of ibuprofen before bed, take a couple hits of 100% Oxygen in the morning, and a shot of alcohol in the morning to get rid of the Hair of the Dog (that bite me last night).

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Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/19/2012 8:24 AM

"So what is everyone preventive measures or cure for a hangover?"

Start experimenting with alchohol at a young age.

1. Go camping with a bunch of similarly-minded friends. Drink whiskey until you pass out. Get tossed out by the park police. Drive home at 2am with one eye squinted shut.

Whiskey is my personal time machine. I need to only catch a whiff of the stuff and I'm 35 years younger.

2. Go to a shooter party. Drink shots of Sambuca until the bottle is empty. Open another bottle. Get booted out of the cab because you have no money. Crawl home. Leave a puddle of puke at the back door for your room mates to find.

It took me two days to recover from that one. Another time machine.

I don't get hangovers any more, because I don't drink too much. Lessons learned.

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#8

Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/19/2012 9:07 AM

I've discovered that, being mainly a beer drinker, some beers will give a far worse hangover than others. I refuse to drink Bud, and used to like Busch because of its lack of hangover effects, but for some reason that has changed. Heineken is pretty decent for not giving me a headache, as is Killian's. I should make a list to share of my personal good and bad beers, but I got work to do.

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Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/19/2012 10:36 AM

Whiskey is my personal time machine. I need to only catch a whiff of the stuff and I'm 35 years younger

Not to mention you become a phenomenal singer and comedian extraordinar

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Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/19/2012 10:41 AM

...with Ninja Powers!

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#11

Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/19/2012 11:29 AM

Drinking doesn't cause hangovers ... waking up does!

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Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/19/2012 12:13 PM

I stopped drinking Bud for the same reason--Hangovers and dull headaches--Other beers can be taken in much larger quantities without any problems.. Also, some wines (I suspect with high sulfates and sulfites maybe), give me hangovers, while others leave no trace--Go figure?.. Eating lightly, when imbibing seems to help, and eating something salty before going to bed, (Or passing out, whichever comes first), seems to help--Probably with water retention...

The Gatorade thing sounds good, but not with beer, or rum. Too many sugary drinks can lead to bad hangovers also it seems..

Of course, prevention, as mentioned, is the best cure..

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#13

Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/20/2012 10:59 AM

Sort-of makes one wonder why people do it at all, doesn't it?

The most incorrigible drink problem is why humans can actually hold two glasses of pop each simultaneously, though only drink one of them at a time.

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#14

Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/20/2012 9:28 PM

My first photographic evidence of an hangover, as a one years old, in Italy, Easter Monday,when all of Italy goes on a picnic. The town priest took me in his arms and carried me around to greet all his parishioners having the "scampagnata". I got to dip my little finger to taste too many glasses of wine.

Fast forward twenty years in Canada, forty-three years ago, working in the summer with a surveying crew with the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario. While celebrating the birthday of one of the crew members, I mixed Chianti with Red Cap Lager... That's it. I spent the next day lying on a granite boulder in the middle of a field somewhere in Ontario.

Lesson learned: Always dip in moderation and never mix wine and beer.

May the spirit of Christmas bring all of you Joy, Health and a Prosperous New Year.

Cheers/Salute/Cin cin

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#15
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Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/21/2012 6:37 AM

Poor, poor deluded soul... none of those are beer.

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#16
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Re: The Science Behind Hangovers

12/26/2012 8:40 AM

That was just a couple of examples. I drink a wide variety of beers, included micro-brewed beer. My all-time favorite was Guinness fresh from the tap in a little hotel in Ireland. I was on a business trip, and the hotel along with the food and drink there was all paid for. I could have filled a bath tub with all the Guinness I drank over the span of 2 weeks.

For another example of a beer that gives me a bad headache, it's Becks.

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