As the clock counts down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, many of you will probably be engaging in a time-honored tradition: Getting wasted.
But those celebratory libations probably won’t feel so good the next morning, when the dreaded hangover sets in. So what exactly causes a hangover, and is there any way to keep it at bay?
Luckily, the smart people at the American Chemical Society (ACS) put together a handy video that explains the chemistry of hangovers.
The science of hangovers
It’s no surprise the hangovers are caused by drinking too much alcohol. The main symptomsinclude fatigue, dehydration, headaches, nausea and vomiting, poor sleep, and dizziness.
According to the ACS video, here’s what’s going on your body when you’ve had a little too much to drink: Alcohol is broken down by two enzymes, or proteins, in the liver — ADH and ALDH. ADH converts alcohol (ethanol) into a toxin compound called acetaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. Then, ALDH breaks acetaldehyde down into acetate, which then breaks down into carbon dioxide and water.
High levels of acetaldehyde may lead to impaired thinking, memory loss, dry mouth, and other symptoms, research suggests.
Alcohol is also a notorious diuretic — it makes you have to use the bathroom more, because it interferes with the production of a hormone called vasopressin, which controls how much water your kidneys excrete.
Drinking can also mess with your sleep. Alcohol gets in the way of two important brain chemicals involved in sleep and wakefulness. It boosts the effects of GABA, a chemical that inhibits or blocks nerve signals, and suppresses the effects of glutamate, a chemical that ramps up brain activity.
As a result, alcohol makes you sleepy. But it also stops you from having as much rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, which is important for recharging your mental batteries.
The nausea and vomiting many people feel after drinking too much comes from the fact that alcohol can damage the mucus lining in your stomach that seals off the strongly acidic contents inside.
So, is there a way to avoid all this pain and suffering?
The ACS video offers a few tips that may help with a hangover, though you may want to take these with a grain of salt given some recent research (details on that below):
- Eat eggs: They contain high levels of an amino acid called L-cysteine, which can help break down acetaldehyde.
- Don’t drink anything at least an hour and a half before going to bed.
- Drink one glass of water for every serving of alcohol (one shot, one beer, one glass of wine) you consume to help prevent dehydration.
- Eat a heavy meal before drinking, especially one rich in proteins, which may slow down the absorption of alcohol and help protect your stomach lining.
For that study, a team of Dutch researchers asked 826 students to describe their most recent drinking experience that led to a hangover, and whether they’d eaten or drunk anything before. The results suggested that food and drink had no effect on the severity of the hangovers they reported.
The only sure-fire way to avoid a hangover is to not drink too much in the first place, the researchers said.