August 6 marks International Hangover Day, and it’s no coincidence that it arrives the day after International Beer Day.
Anyone who drinks alcohol would have likely experienced a time when they’ve felt a bit rough around the edges as a result of the previous night’s merrymaking. To mark International Hangover Day, Newsweek asked scientists to explain the biological basis of a hangover.
” A hangover is a type of mini withdrawal. The body responds to excessive drinking by producing opposite physiological reactions,” said Dr. George F. Koob (director of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism).
“As soon as alcohol enters the brain, brain circuits begin to adjust to minimize the perturbations caused by alcohol and return circuits to baseline levels of functioning. As a result of this acute tolerance, when the alcohol wears off, activity in circuits that were suppressed by alcohol now overshoot baseline levels of activity,” he added.
For instance, alcohol initially slows activity in the brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions. Although this reduces anxiety feelings, rebound excitation within the amygdala could cause anxiety and increased irritability after a hangover.
“Similarly, circuits initially activated by alcohol might be less active for a while when the alcohol wears off. While alcohol initially increases reward system activity in the brain, dampened reward activity could contribute to malaise and anhedonia during a hangover,” Koob told Newsweek.
There are other factors that can lead to hangovers. Alcohol can cause stomach irritation and acid production, leading to stomach pain and nausea.
“Alcohol is converted to acetaldehyde, a toxic metabolite that triggers inflammation and damages DNA. It is not clear what acetaldehyde contributes to hangovers. While alcohol might reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, it disrupts sleep architecture and reduces total sleep time, which could contribute to next day fatigue,” Koob added.
Dr. Sally Adams, an associate professor in psychology specializing in alcohol and addiction at the University of Birmingham, said that when the amount of alcohol in the blood is approaching zero, the body tries to metabolize it into waste products that can be removed from the body.
“To do this, the body synthesizes a toxic chemical that makes us feel unwell, sick and nauseous,” she told Newsweek. These effects can make us feel awful when combined. Together these effects can make us feel pretty awful.”
Adams said that to date there is “no convincing evidence” for a product that prevents or reduces a hangover.
“Probably because it has many complex effects on the body and brain and most remedies focus on just one, i.e. water for dehydration. Adams stated that the only way to prevent a hangover was to stop drinking or to drink moderately.
Koob said that drinkers should avoid exceeding the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Department of Agriculture amounts for alcohol. The three guidelines allow adults over legal drinking age to choose to not drink, or to consume moderate amounts of alcohol. Women should have no more than one or two drinks per day while men should drink less than that.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Koob said. Koob stated that limiting the amount of drinks consumed and eating throughout the night could reduce stomach irritation and increase overall health. While there are lots of purported hangover remedies on the market, compelling evidence of effectiveness remains elusive. Preferred strategies for coping with the discomfort of hangovers vary considerably but water, rest and time seem to be common components.”
Koob concludes that hangovers are not only miserable but dangerous. “During hangovers, attention, decision making, memory and muscle coordination can all be impaired. These effects make it harder to do things like drive cars, ride bikes, fly planes or even perform surgeries. So, while the alcohol might be gone, the ability to perform important tasks might still be impaired.”
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