Can You Really Avoid A Hangover?

Written by Jillian Kent

Let's face it, when the sun is out, the drinks are out, and between the iconic patio season, nights at the cottage, or BBQs with friends it's possible that we might over indulge in the booze once or twice, leading to that dreaded next morning hangover. 

Now, no matter how much research is done on this topic, the only way that we, or anyone else, can guarantee that you will avoid that holiday hangover is to avoid the holiday drinks – or at least drink within the limit you know that you can handle without any pesky symptoms the next morning -  however, there is some science behind the cause and effect of the hangover, and with a little bit of foreknowledge you might be able to party one night, and only feel mild effects the next.

So, let’s start off with the basics – what is a hangover? A hangover is a series of negative physical effects that occur after consuming alcohol. While it generally makes itself known after drinking large amounts of alcohol – usually within a short amount of time – there is no guarantee for the limits of what amounts of alcohol will cause a hangover. It is different for everyone. What is fairly standard is that a hangover will occur once the majority of the alcohol has left our system and our blood alcohol level is near or at zero. This is why the symptoms often become apparent the morning, sometimes even the afternoon, after.

A hangover can take a whole host of different symptoms, but the most common are any combination of the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Excessive Thirst
  • Dry Mouth
  • Headache
  • Nausea or Vomiting
  • Shakiness or Dizziness
  • Sensitivity to Light
  • Increased pulse
  • Sweating

Now that we know what a hangover is and how we get it (i.e. from drinking alcohol) you would think that it would be easy enough to answer why we get it. What is it about alcohol that causes our body to react this way? Unfortunately, it is not as clear cut as one might think. Even science has come back with conflicting results as to what does and does not lead to your hangover.

The most common reason you will hear for a hangover is that it is not so much the alcohol that is causing the symptoms but the dehydration that you incurred drinking it. The main reason alcohol makes you dehydrated is that it is a diuretic, which causes your body to lose water. Combine that with the fact that you likely weren’t drinking any water while you were drinking alcohol, and its no wonder your body is a little parched.

Therefore, you have likely heard many friends tell you that the best way to avoid the hangover is to keep drinking water. One glass of water for every glass of alcohol you drink is an old tried trick that likely has some effect as alcohol will make you dehydrated. Furthermore, alcohol is also believed to impacts your electrolyte count, so if you really wish to counteract that, and hydrate to your fullest, you can also look into sports drinks specifically designed to keep you hydrated, which many supplement companies provide.

Another big factor that people look to is sleep. Increased volumes of alcohol reduce your body’s ability to enter the deep restorative modes of sleep, and therefore sleep deprivation could be another reason you feel at your worst the morning after you drink.  

Still, if you are thinking that it can’t be as simple as dehydration and sleep deprivation, that there has to be something more to the pesky hangover, you’re not wrong – Science has pointed to two chemicals or compounds that are either in, or produced by the consumption of alcohol, whose toxicity level might be causing those negative hangover symptoms.

The first is a group of compounds that are often created by the production of alcohol, referred to as “Congeners”. Some of the most common congeners are methanol and tannins, and they are found in higher concentrations in darker alcohols such as brandy; in fact, clear alcohols, Vodka in particular, have almost none. Scientists believe congeners play a role in the hangover, as studies have found that people who drink equal amounts of congener heavy alcohol as the congener light ones, suffer more severely from hangover symptoms.  While they have not fully figured out why congeners have this effect, they believe that it might have something to do with how the body breaks down congeners – which leads us to our next and final cause of the dreaded hangover: acetaldehyde.

When the body breaks down alcohol, acetaldehyde is the first byproduct that it creates, and is in fact estimated to be 10 to 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself. This, combined with the fact that hangover symptoms generally appear only once the alcohol is gone from our system, leads many to believe that it is the toxicity of the acetaldehyde in our system that produces the hangover. This theory can also account for why alcohol and hangovers effect people differently, for the speed of our metabolism can affect the volume and duration of the presence of acetaldehyde.

This last theory does seem to make it difficult to find a way around hangovers, and it’s true. As we said off the top, while we can provide tips for help managing hangovers, we cannot provide a foolproof solution for them. That being said, there are some products on the market, that have been designed to help protect the liver, and speed up the elimination of acetaldehyde in the system.  There is a large debate on whether these drugs are actually effective, but the premise is an intriguing one that many are more than willing to try.

So, while we cannot guarantee you a hangover free summer, unless you plan to make it an alcohol free one too, we hope that with the little bit of science and background information we’ve provided, you’ve got the tools to at the very least make it a hangover light one.

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