Hangovers seem to be the body’s way of letting us know about the risks of overindulgence. Physiologically, some symptoms are present, including diarrhea, headache, fatigue, shaking, and nausea. Sometimes the heart rate and blood pressure increase. Breaking out in cold sweat can occur – this is evidence that the body is going into “fight or flight” response mode, perceiving a danger that is objectively non-existent. Symptoms of a hangover may include enhanced sensitivity to sound or light. It is also possible to suffer from vertigo, a spinning sensation, and to feel faint.
What is a Hangover? Is it Dangerous?
Hangover definition of the National Institutes of Health: a group of unpleasant symptoms that arise after a person has consumed alcohol excessively. The meaning of excessive consumption of alcohol according to SAMHSA is drinking on five or more days in the past month. Excessive use is considered more than three drinks a day for women and more than four for men. This puts one at risk not only for perpetual hangovers but for developing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
We know people who drink rarely or incidentally can have hangovers too. In fact, they are more likely to than people who drink more frequently because their bodies aren’t used to alcohol, and it’s easy to go overboard. Teenagers who have not been exposed to alcohol before are especially at risk. Statistics show that people from 12 to 20 years of age drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed nationwide.
What Causes a Hangover? Physiological Factors
Alcohol is a diuretic, and as such can cause dehydration. The body processes fluid faster than usual after one has drunk and people urinate more often. This also causes increased thirst.
Other causes of a hangover include low blood sugar, blood vessel expansion, inflammation, stomach irritation, certain chemicals produced by alcohol metabolism, and chemicals used as flavor and color enhancers for liquors. These chemicals are one reason why people are advised to avoid drinking bright or dark-colored beverages. ¾ of all people who “drink to elevation” experience unpleasant hangover symptoms.
Alcohol increases stomach acid production, which in turn inflames the stomach lining and can result in nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting. It reduces blood sugar levels, leading to weakness, shakiness, tremors, exhaustion, and (sometimes violent) mood swings. The chemicals produced in the wake of alcohol metabolism cause unpleasant side effects too. One of these chemicals is acetaldehyde, a metabolite of physiological alcohol processing.
Expanded Blood Vessels Cause Hangover Headaches
The common hangover headache, which is maybe the most common hangover symptom, occurs because alcohol makes blood vessels expand. The chemicals coloring and flavoring different types of liquor also contribute to this, intensifying the headache. Less common symptoms include muscle cramps, tremors and shakiness, weakness and exhaustion after sleeping for a relatively long time, and vomiting.
Some people experience increased anxiety, sometimes culminating in a panic attack, irritability, or depression. It is possible to have trouble focusing on a work-related task or exhibit diminished cognitive and visual-spatial skills.
When Is It More Than “Just a Hangover”?
The question everyone asks in the throes of misery, “How long does a hangover last?” Thankfully, most of them end in 24 hours. They start several hours after a person stops drinking when the blood alcohol concentration starts to drop.
Symptoms of a hangover are generally most intense when the BAC goes down to zero. They can go on for up to 24 hours after that. If a person is still feeling unwell after 24 hours have passed, this could be a sign of complications, which frequently necessitate medical attention and sometimes urgent help. Severe symptoms may indicate alcohol poisoning, which is a medical emergency and can have a fatal outcome.
Call 911 immediately if someone is experiencing or exhibiting the following reactions after drinking alcohol:
- Erratic behavior, severe mental confusion
- Seizure (a symptom of delirium tremens in persons addicted to alcohol)
- Loss of consciousness
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Bluish or pale skin
Consequences of a Hangover
Even mild symptoms can have negative effects, such as reduced productivity and increased injury risk. Due to temporarily diminished cognitive skills, the person may struggle to complete tasks at work, causing everyone’s work to slow down. More severe symptoms may render one incapable of even going to work. Sleepiness, grogginess, and decreased spatial and visual skills may increase the risk of sustaining a physical injury.
This is especially dangerous if the person’s job involves operating heavy machinery. When someone is hung over, they are more likely to have mood swings, which may lead to conflicts with a significant other, a co-worker, boss or family member.
Although the intensity of hangover symptoms is determined by the amount consumed, there are some other risk factors:
- Drinking more than the body can take. The tolerance level tends to increase with use over time, which is why chronic users will be hung over less and less often.
- Body weight: People with lower body weight and mass will get drunk faster because fat and muscle tissues absorb alcohol. Men of slight built and women usually have heavier hangover symptoms.
- Drinking on an empty stomach: Snacking while drinking or having dinner before keeps blood alcohol levels from peaking.
Certain drugs, such as depressants and stimulants, can enhance the effects of alcohol, making hangovers worse. After mixing alcohol with another drug or drugs, one may consider themselves lucky to get away with just being hungover!
How to Prevent a Hangover
Start by establishing a safe drinking limit. This is around three shots of hard liquor, 4 small beers or 3 glasses of wine (not all three together) for most people. The more a person drinks, the higher their chances of being hungover the morning after. Keep the tolerance level in mind. This varies across individuals. As a rule of thumb, however, one should stop drinking when they feel they’re getting drunk and starting to act out of character. Avoiding drinking with people one doesn’t know is also a good idea.
Never drink on an empty stomach. Not only do people get drunk faster, alcohol is also really acidic and can cause severe stomach pain on an empty stomach. If one tends to drink on an empty stomach, a host of gastric ailments may begin to manifest themselves, including an ulcer. Food slows down the body’s absorption of alcohol, especially carbs like pizza or pasta and fats. Drink water or another non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beverage with the liquor of choice. This keeps one hydrated and makes sure they don’t exceed their “safe limit”.
- Take time. The faster one drinks, the more likely they are to drink excessively.
- Drink water before turning in. This protects many from the symptoms of a hangover. It is no guarantee, but it helps. Stock the bedroom up with water.
- Choose light-colored or clear drinks like vodka, gin, and white rum over whiskey, brandy, and red wine. They contain fewer colorants, which can exacerbate a hangover. The best hard liquor one can drink gin because it’s also the least acidic. Notwithstanding, one is at risk if they drink too much no matter what they drink.
In most cases, hangovers do not require medical help. However, the physical discomfort they cause is not pleasant in any way. In worse cases, they begin affecting work performance and interpersonal relationships.
Overdrinking chronically can also cause specific health problems to surface with time, such as liver disease or pancreatitis (chronic inflammation of the pancreas), even if the person doesn’t do it more often than once a week.
How to Get Rid of a Hangover
Of course, abstaining from alcohol is the most effective way to prevent a hangover, but full abstinence is not always feasible. It would be incorrect to ask “how to cure a hangover” because it is not a disease to be cured. That said, over-the-counter medication like paracetamol, naproxen, and ibuprofen can help manage hangover headaches and muscle pain.
Aspirin is also good unless the person is nauseous, in which case it might induce vomiting. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is not recommended because it’s hard on the liver, which is struggling with the alcohol as it is. Coffee can be an excellent option for someone who’s wondering how to get over a hangover. It will take the weariness away, reduce depression, and give one energy to work.
Although it is a stimulant, it will reduce the anxiety caused by “coming down” after a bout of drinking. Coffee’s not a good idea only if one is feeling nauseous because it irritates the stomach.
Sleeping It Off
People don’t usually get deep, good-quality sleep after drinking too much, because alcohol messes with the human growth hormone and stimulates non-REM sleep, the kind that doesn’t replenish energy. Still, “sleeping it off” has worked for many. Retire to a quiet, dark room to sleep or rest because noise and bright light tend to exacerbate hangover headaches.
What to Eat
Most people don’t feel like eating when they’re hungover, which is understandable. However, a little bit of bland food like a piece of toast or a few crackers will do wonders. Non-acidic fruit like bananas provide a much-needed boost to blood sugar levels and relieve jitters and fatigue. Ginger is recommended – people have taken it to prevent nausea for centuries.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a combination of brown sugar, ginger, and tangerine consumed before drinking reduces nausea. A study showed taking 1,600 IU of prickly pear cactus extract a few hours before drinking decreased the risk of a severe hangover by 50 percent.
Finally, try this home remedy:
Mix ½ cup of mashed banana or orange juice, ½ teaspoon of salt, and 7 teaspoons of sugar into 6 cups of distilled water. Store the mixture in a cool place and sip it slowly over the next 24 hours.