The Science Of A Hangover: How Alcohol Withdrawal Affects The Brain And Body

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If you’ve ever touched alcohol, it’s likely that you’ve experienced a hangover at some point in your life. From the general feeling of malaise to the pounding headache, it’s easy to know when you overdid it the night before, and find yourself wondering how to cure a hangover.

If you’re like many people who have woken up feeling less than chipper after a night out, you may wonder why a hangover happens, and whether it’s a sign of a drinking problem. Let’s take a look at what’s actually happening in your body and brain when you go through a hangover.

Symptoms Of A Hangover

Not everyone experiences a hangover in the same way, but there are some hallmark symptoms that are common among people who drink alcohol. Symptoms of a hangover may include:

  • Fatigue and/ or weakness. This effect can be amplified if you did not get as much sleep as normal. It’s likely that you also experienced poor sleep, even if you didn’t wake up much (or at all).

  • Thirst and dry mouth. This can be hard to get rid of no matter how much water you drink.

  • Vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. These issues can present a tough conundrum – you may feel like you desperately need something in your stomach, but struggle to keep down food and water.

  • A distorted sense of motion. This can involve feeling disoriented, as if the room is spinning.

  • Shakiness of the hands and feet.

  • Mental changes. This can include anxiety, a feeling of sadness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and a sense of hopelessness.

Factors That Influence Hangover Severity

Like we said, not everyone will experience hangovers in the same way. Research has shown that even when the drink the same amount, women are more likely to experience hangovers than men. This is likely due to the fact that women tend to weigh less than men, and alcohol builds up in their systems more quickly than the same amount of alcohol would build up for a larger man. Age seems to be a factor as well – people over 40 are much less likely to experience hangovers than adolescents.

Genetics also seem to play a role. Some people (especially people of Asian descent) have a gene that converts alcohol into a toxin, acetaldehyde, much more quickly than people who do not have the gene. This can result in flushing of the skin, and may also cause increased severity in hangovers.

What Causes A Hangover?

Believe it or not, scientists still aren’t 100% sure why hangovers happen, especially given that they occur even after all of the alcohol that was ingested has been expelled from the person’s system. Let’s take a look at some of the most likely theories as to why a night of drinking leaves so many people feeling so miserable.

  • Dehydration – It’s likely that a lack of water in the body plays at least some role in the reasons for a hangover. Alcohol increases urine production. Usually, when people are drinking alcohol, they aren’t drinking much water. Interestingly, researchers have studied dehydration levels and hangover severity, and found that the two do not correlate. While dehydration likely plays a role, it’s not the sole cause for a hangover.

  • Buildup of acetaldehyde – This is the most promising explanations. The body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxin. acetaldehyde is 10-30 times more toxic than alcohol, and it’s the first byproduct created as the body metabolizes booze. Controlled studies have shown that people who ingest acetaldehyde experience hangover-like symptoms, such as sweating, nausea, vomiting, and flushed skin.

  • Immune response – Alcohol interfere’s with the way the immune system works. Studies have shown that people who are experiencing a hangover have high levels of cytokines – molecules that the immune system uses to send messages to the body. Typically, the body sends out cytokines to trigger the body’s inflammatory response to fight infection. It seems that alcohol triggers the release of cytokines as well, which can lead to symptoms such as irritability, nausea, memory loss, headaches, muscle aches, and fatigue.

Psychological Effects

While the physical effects of a hangover are intense, the mental effects can be even worse. The release of certain chemicals in the brain can cause anxiety, which can be worsened by facing bad decisions that were made while drinking. Waking up with a hangover often requires the scary actions of checking bank accounts, checking text messages, and waiting to find out whether you’ve embarrassed yourself. Worrying about these factors after a night of drinking can make it even harder to recover from the physical symptoms of a hangover.

Ready To Make A Change? We’re Here To Help

If you’re tired of waking up the morning after heavy drinking with a pounding head, a sour stomach, and a sense of anxiety about looking at your phone, we’re here to help. When drinking becomes a problem, it can be tough to admit that things are out of control. Talk to someone about getting help before regular hangovers morph into delirium tremens or wet brain. At our treatment center, we’re here to give you the help you need to get well – not to judge you.

If you’re ready to make a change, reach out to Cardinal Recovery today. Our trained therapists will work with you to develop a treatment plan that makes sense for your unique needs.



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