What Your Body Goes Through When You're Hungover
Who hasn’t been there: celebrating at a Christmas party with your friends turns into a night of drinking. It sneaks up on you: one drink becomes two and so on. Now you feel dizzy and suffer from a blistering headache, while your stomach churns. Even the thought of breakfast is repulsive. All you want to do is pull the blankets over your head and fall back asleep to escape the misery. Heavy drinking has a price that we all usually have to pay.
So, what actually happens to your body after drinking alcohol? What is actually happening to your body when you're hung over?
- Alcohol makes the blood vessels expand—in medical terms, this is called vasodilation. Once alcohol is eliminated from your system, the blood vessels contract again (called vasoconstriction). Every time the blood vessels in your head expand or contract, you feel pain. This is why you have a throbbing headache.
- Alcohol irritates your stomach, resulting in an inflamed stomach lining. It also stimulates your pancreas and intestines, causing increased secretion. This is why you feel nauseous, may vomit, and/or have diarrhea.
- Alcohol is a diuretic. Let me repeat: Alcohol is a diuretic. This means, it makes you urinate more liquid than you take in by blocking a hormone that aids your kidneys in absorbing water. You become dehydrated, and this upends the balance of electrolytes—such as magnesium, sodium and potassium—in your body. In other words, it disrupts your electrolyte homeostasis. This also causes headaches and nausea, causing you to chase down pain relievers or sports drinks to remedy your dry mouth.
- Alcohol disrupts your body’s rhythm, and therefore your sleep cycle. This is why you feel so fatigued.
- Alcohol is oxidized into acetaldehyde when your body (especially your liver) metabolizes it. This substance is more toxic than the alcohol itself, and until your liver can clear it from your system, acetaldehyde can do quite a bit of damage. The more you drink, the harder it will be for your liver to catch up with breaking down and removing this toxin. This is why you may experience nausea and body aches all over.
- Alcohol also disrupts your blood sugar levels, usually causing them to plummet. This also contributes to feelings of fatigue and weakness.
- Alcohol will at first cause your body to be flooded with reward neurotransmitters such as dopamine, and this makes you feel great. But when you stop drinking and the dopamine flood also stops, your mood swings in the opposite direction. This is why you feel so anxious, depressed, and miserable.
Tips on How to Get Through a Hangover
Can you prevent a hangover? Obviously, the only real “hangover cure” in existence is to know your limits and stick to them. But if you happened to miss the mark, here are a few tips on how to deal with the symptoms:
- Make sure you drink plenty of water to hydrate. Drink water in between alcoholic beverages, a big glass of water before you go to bed, and then again after you wake up.
- Make sure you consume enough electrolytes—such as sodium, magnesium, and potassium—in your food or in the form of supplements. Respective examples are salty pickles, cashew nuts, and bananas. You can eat these already before you have a drink in order to maintain electrolyte homeostasis.
- If you wake up with a hangover, try to regain electrolyte homeostasis with a supplement when your stomach does not permit eating.
- Moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk in the fresh air, will help your body to recuperate faster.
We at Health by Principle do not endorse the consumption of alcoholic beverages, or over-indulgence therein, especially when driving. We wish you Happy Holidays and encourage you to celebrate responsibly!
- “Electrolytes’ Impact on Hangovers,” https://www.healthbyprinciple.com/blogs/news/electrolytes-vs-hangover
- Caroline Thompson, “What Happens in Your Body During a Soul-Crushing Hangover?” https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xyk3g7/whats-happening-inside-your-body-during-a-soul-crushing-hangover