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No matter what we call it, «the morning after», « hangover» or even «veisalgia», what occurs the day after heavy drinking, along with its symptoms, is very well known by occasional drinkers, as well as, people who are addicted to alcohol. While the impacts of a hangover hold very few secrets, the causes may still have some: false beliefs about real scientific research. Let us look at what is true and what is false.
The most commonly used names for it are «hangover» and «the morning after». There is however a scientific term called veisalgia. It comes from the Norwegian kveis (uneasiness following debauchery) and the Greek algia (pain).
Symptoms associated with hangovers vary according to different factors such as the quantity that was absorbed, how quickly it was absorbed, the age and gender of the person, etc. Among the symptoms, you may notice:
Hangover symptoms are in full effect 12 to 14 hours after heavy drinking, that is when blood alcohol content has dropped significantly and is at or near zero.
Despite alcohol being omnipresent in certain cultures over many centuries, scientific studies on the topic of hangovers are still very recent. Research may have intensified over the past years, but some mysteries still need clearing up. Certain factors, however, have been identified and explained. One thing is certain: no one factor alone can explain the hangover.
Alcohol has diuretic properties, meaning it is a substance that causes frequent urination, thus dehydrating the body. Dehydration causes an imbalance of electrolytes in the blood which the body needs for various functions. However, the concentration of electrolytes seems to have little effect on the severity of the hangover. Therefore, dehydration alone cannot explain this occurrence.
After a few too many drinks, some may fall asleep very quickly and can even do so anywhere. Heavy drinking can cause extreme drowsiness and falling asleep can happen quite suddenly. The quality of sleep, however, can be severely affected by the alcohol. Therefore, sleep is lighter and interrupted by more phases of wakefulness which can last longer. Bad sleep contributes to the fatigue and the decrease in coordination and concentration felt when hungover.
Alcohol is made up of congeners, among others. Congeners are substances resulting from the alcohol fermentation process and bigger quantities of them are found in brown alcohol (whiskey, red wine…) rather than in white (vodka, gin…). Many studies regarding hangovers have focused on this substance and have proven that hangovers are worse when the ingested alcohol is more concentrated in congeners.
Drinking alcohol causes blood glucose levels to drop which is linked to dehydration. This state of hypoglycemia can cause symptoms of a hangover. However, if a lack of glucose was the main problem, glucose intake would be the solution, which, a lot of studies proved, is not the case.
When alcohol is ingested, it is gradually broken down by the liver which transforms it into a substance called acetaldehyde. This substance is toxic and was the focus of several studies to determine whether it was responsible for hangover symptoms. These studies showed that this substance was efficiently eliminated by the body to the point that there was none left the next day. Therefore, it could not solely be responsible for a hangover.
These various factors are just some examples among many that are currently being explored by scientific research, such as genetics or even immunity.
Around 25% of the population claim never having had a hangover. Currently, this occurrence remains unexplained, albeit interesting, and paves the way for further research namely on genetic factors.
From home remedies to the latest miracle cure: everything has been said on curing a hangover. But what is real? Let us go over a few cures that can help…or not.
«Never drink on an empty stomach! »: advice that has often been repeated as one of the secrets for not feeling bad the morning after. The truth? While it is true that eating, before or during heavy drinking, can in fact slow down the absorption alcohol, it CANNOT stop it. The simple fact of eating will not prevent an unpleasant morning after. In addition, eating well can create a false sense of protection against the effects of alcohol and incite people to drink more.
«A drink, a glass of water, a drink, a glass of water and you will be fine tomorrow! » It is true that drinking water during the evening can slightly slow down alcohol absorption by the body while rehydrating it. But as previously explained, dehydration is not solely responsible for a hangover. Strategically alternating a drink and a glass of water will cause someone to slow his/her drinking and invariably drink less. In that sense, it could be effective. However, drinking a litter of water at bedtime or first thing in the morning, is not enough to prevent or stop a hangover.
Taking Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen at bedtime or in the morning can help with headaches. But be careful: there are cons for each that in certain cases can be dangerous. Ibuprofen can in fact aggravate the irritating effect of alcohol on the stomach. Acetaminophen is strongly advised against for people addicted to alcohol or who have liver disorders. In those cases, Acetaminophen can increase the risk of toxicity in the liver and thus exacerbate the problem, even create lesions.
The market on hangover miracle cures is very lucrative. Over the past years, various companies have emerged offering the miracle cure for unpleasant mornings after: pills, infusions, beverages….all at top dollar. However, to this day, none have really proven their effectiveness in treating hangovers. The illusion of protection they create can even push someone to drink more without fear of paying the price the next day!
Time is a cure that is free and it works, but we have no control over it. The only effective cure to a hangover is to be patient and give ourselves the time to feel normal again.
As for prevention, drinking in moderation…or not at all, remain the only solutions to avoid hangovers!
On top of the personal inconveniences experienced by people who are hungover, this occurrence also has consequences on the country’s economy. In 2002, it was estimated that, in Canada, loss of productivity linked to drinking had cost 7.1 billion dollars!
If we add on costs related to healthcare, law enforcement, car accidents, prevention, research and other collateral damage, the total amount climbed to 14,6 billion dollars.
For those with a drinking problem, hangovers can have a major impact in their daily life: family, professional, physical health and mental health problems. If that is the case for you, you do not need to be alone: call us at 1-800-265-2626 or chat with us on the bottom right of our site. We can provide you with personalized support and information and refer you to resources adapted to your situation. We are available 24/7, confidential and free.
Sources: Mayo Clinic, Agence Science Presse, Métabolisme de l’alcool, Dr Roger Nordmann, Alcohol Hangover Research Group, scientifique-en-chef.gouv.qc.ca, Wired, National Library of Medicine, The Washington Post, Le Soleil, Science et Avenir, Educ’alcool, canadaensante.gc.ca, Radio Canada