Why Do People Get Hangovers?

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Tony Lim & Let's Talk Science
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Why does drinking too much alcohol make people feel so bad? Read about four theories.

Have you ever watched a TV show or movie where a character drinks too much alcohol one night? And the next day, they wake up with a hangover? This often seems funny on the screen. But in real life, it is pretty unpleasant! 

Symptoms of a hangover
Symptoms of a hangover (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science using an image by Irina_Strelnikova via iStockphoto).

 

A hangover can leave a person with many uncomfortable symptoms.Here are a few examples:

  • a pounding headache (that’s the symptom you often see in movies)
  • dry mouth
  • nausea
  • sensitivity to light
  • irritable mood
  • trouble concentrating

Let’s look at some theories about why hangovers happen.

What causes a hangover?

Scientists aren’t sure what exactly causes a hangover. But there are a few well-known theories. One theory is that hangovers are caused by dehydration. That’s a lack of water in the body.

In order to reabsorb water, the kidneys need a hormone called vasopressin. Without vasopressin, the body expels water in the form of urine. Alcohol is linked to suppressing vasopressin production in the brain. This supports the idea that when a person drinks alcohol, they get dehydrated.  But studies have shown that the degree of vasopressin-suppression caused by alcohol may not be enough to cause hangover symptoms at all! 

Did you know?

The technical term for having a hangover is “veisalgia.”

Another popular theory is that the breakdown of alcohol by the body produces a toxic substance called acetaldehyde. This symptom may be linked to hangover symptoms. The liver is responsible for breaking alcohol down in the body. 

Liver breaks alcohol down in a multi-step reaction.

First, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) breaks ethanol down in the liver. Ethanol (CH3CH2OH) is the chemical name of the alcohol people drink. This reaction creates the intermediate product, acetaldehyde (CH3CHO). 

Next, the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) breaks down acetaldehyde. This results in acetate (CH3COO-).

Finally, scetate is then further broken down into carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O). It is expelled from the body. 

Chemical breakdown of ethanol by the liver
Chemical breakdown of ethanol by the liver (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science).

Some studies suggest that acetaldehyde concentration in the body is linked to a hangover. But hangovers are more likely linked to underlying immune factors, and the body’s overall health.

Another theory involves cytokines. Cytokines are proteins released by the cells. They assist in cell communication. Typically, they are linked to the immune system. They transmit information and facilitate the body’s reaction when you get sick. Studies have also found that drinking alcohol can cause changes in cytokine concentrations in the immune system. So when a person drinks alcohol, their body’s cytokine concentration goes up. This disrupts the body’s ability to communicate properly. The body may begin to think it is sick. And what happens when your body thinks it is sick? You get symptoms like nausea, headaches, and fatigue. 

Finally, further studies suggest that chemicals called congeners might affect how bad a hangover gets. Congeners are trace chemicals in alcoholic beverages. They result from fermentation. They can break down into toxic chemicals in the body, and may be the cause of hangover symptoms. 

Did you know?

Red wine and dark liquor, such as whisky, have the highest levels of congeners. This may be why hangovers from these drinks can be especially tough!

What is the best cure for a hangover?

First of all, be sure to avoid alcohol if you’re not of legal age.

But for people who are of legal age, the best way to avoid a hangover is to drink moderately in the first place. Limit how much alcohol you drink at one time.

Can drinking water cure or prevent a hangover? There is limited evidence that it can. But water does help treat some of the symptoms, such as dry mouth and headaches. Also, eating foods high in potassium, such as bananas, can help correct ionic imbalances in the body. People lose vitamins through urination. But in general, foods high in vitamins can help replace lost vitamins. They can also help with alcohol detoxification. Finally, foods that have a high amount of the amino acid cysteine help break down acetaldehyde. Eggs are an example. This may explain those hungover brunches you see on TV!

 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating

  • What movies or television shows have you watched in which someone had a hangover? What did the character look like with a hangover? How did they act? 
  • Have you or someone you know ever had a hangover? What was the experience like? 
  • Are there any particular cures for hangovers that you have heard of? Do you believe they will work? Explain. 

Connecting and Relating

  • What movies or television shows have you watched in which someone had a hangover? What did the character look like with a hangover? How did they act? 
  • Have you or someone you know ever had a hangover? What was the experience like? 
  • Are there any particular cures for hangovers that you have heard of? Do you believe they will work? Explain. 

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • What are the possible social and economic consequences of hangovers? 
  • In high risk/high responsibility jobs it is illegal to be working under the influence of alcohol. Should it also be illegal to work in these positions with a hangover?  
  • How is alcohol impairment in the workplace regulated? What level of government is involved in this regulation? (Note: This question may require additional research.)

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • What are the possible social and economic consequences of hangovers? 
  • In high risk/high responsibility jobs it is illegal to be working under the influence of alcohol. Should it also be illegal to work in these positions with a hangover?  
  • How is alcohol impairment in the workplace regulated? What level of government is involved in this regulation? (Note: This question may require additional research.)

Exploring Concepts

  • What is a hangover? What are the outward symptoms of a hangover?
  • Which areas of the body does a hangover affect?
  •  Why can the body get dehydrated from drinking alcohol? 
  • How is alcohol metabolized in the body? What metabolites may be responsible for the symptoms of a hangover? 
  • Why is it easier to prevent a hangover than cure one? 

Exploring Concepts

  • What is a hangover? What are the outward symptoms of a hangover?
  • Which areas of the body does a hangover affect?
  •  Why can the body get dehydrated from drinking alcohol? 
  • How is alcohol metabolized in the body? What metabolites may be responsible for the symptoms of a hangover? 
  • Why is it easier to prevent a hangover than cure one? 

Media Literacy

  • Many sitcoms and movies show characters with hangovers to provide an injection of comedy. Clearly, the symptoms the character is feeling are not funny, so why does it make us laugh? 
     

Media Literacy

  • Many sitcoms and movies show characters with hangovers to provide an injection of comedy. Clearly, the symptoms the character is feeling are not funny, so why does it make us laugh? 
     

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning of Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy and Health related to aldehydes & ketones, alcohols, excretory system, organic chemistry and the immune system. Concepts introduced include hangover, alcohol consumption, dehydration, vasopressin, kidneys, urine, brain, toxic, acetaldehyde, liver, ethanol, enzyme, intermediate, acetate, cytokines, congeners and fermentation.
  • Before reading this article, teachers provide students with a Vocabulary Preview learning strategy to engage prior knowledge and introduce new terminology. Ready-to-use Vocabulary Preview reproducibles for this article are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • After reading the article, teachers could have students complete a Question-Answer-Relationship learning strategy to consolidate understanding and practice questioning skills. Ready-to-use Question-Answer-Relationship reproducibles for this article are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • To further consolidate the information presented in the article, teachers could have students create a graphic organizer or infographic that shows all the possible effects of a hangover on the human body.

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning of Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy and Health related to aldehydes & ketones, alcohols, excretory system, organic chemistry and the immune system. Concepts introduced include hangover, alcohol consumption, dehydration, vasopressin, kidneys, urine, brain, toxic, acetaldehyde, liver, ethanol, enzyme, intermediate, acetate, cytokines, congeners and fermentation.
  • Before reading this article, teachers provide students with a Vocabulary Preview learning strategy to engage prior knowledge and introduce new terminology. Ready-to-use Vocabulary Preview reproducibles for this article are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • After reading the article, teachers could have students complete a Question-Answer-Relationship learning strategy to consolidate understanding and practice questioning skills. Ready-to-use Question-Answer-Relationship reproducibles for this article are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • To further consolidate the information presented in the article, teachers could have students create a graphic organizer or infographic that shows all the possible effects of a hangover on the human body.

Learn more

The 23 Best Hangover Foods (2018)

Article from HealthLine listing a number of foods that may help with a hangover with a brief explanation why they may be helpful. Note that this resource was also used as a reference.

The science of a hangover (2011)

This article by Will Humphries for Cardiff Drinks discusses some of the effects of a hangover and possible combative remedies.

References

Gill, G. V., Baylis, P. H., Flear, C. T., Skillen, A. W., & Diggle, P. H. (1982). Acute biochemical responses to moderate beer drinking. British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Edition), 285(6357), 1770-1773. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.285.6357.1770

Mayo Clinic. (2017, December 16). Hangovers.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2007, July). Alcohol metabolism: An update.

Perry, L. (2004, October 12). How hangovers work. How Stuff Works.

Rohsenow, D. J., & Howland, J. (2010). The role of beverage congeners in hangover and other residual effects of alcohol intoxication: A review. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 3(2), 76-79. DOI: 10.2174/1874473711003020076

Stromberg, J. (2013, December 13). Your complete guide to the science of hangovers. The Smithsonian Institute.

The Chronicle Flask. (2015, August 29). Does drinking alcohol actually cause dehydration?

Tony Lim

Tony Lim is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in the neuroscience program at McGill University. In addition to neuroscience, Tony's scientific interest and background lies in the field of pharmacology. When not at the lab, he enjoys playing volleyball, badminton, snowboarding and playing electric guitar with the band in his spare time.
 

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