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How Hangovers Work

A bearded man looks in a mirror, appearing exhausted and a bit sick.
Most of us know all too well what a hangover feels like, but what exactly causes it?


Hangover literally means “something that remains from what is past.”

And oh what a mess that remaining part of you is. Crushing headache. Nausea. Fatigue. Dry mouth.

Let’s take a look at what exactly is going on behind the scenes to cause you so much pain.

What Hangovers Do To Your Body

One major source of your discomfort is dehydration.

Alcohol suppresses the release of a hormone called vasopressin, which normally repurposes water released by the kidneys back into the body. Without vasopressin, all of the water that would normally keep you hydrated is literally flushed down the toilet.

Classic symptoms of dehydrations include dry mouth, headache and muscle cramps.

But what causes the nausea?

There are actually a few different theories floating around.

One is that acetaldehyde is too blame. It’s the toxic byproduct left after alcohol is broken down. Thankfully, your body is on it, sending enzymes to break down that acetaldehyde into harmless acetate.

Problems start when the body can’t break down the acetaldehyde fast enough (usually because you drank too much too quickly). Some people, however, are born with a gene that prevents their body from processing alcohol efficiently. They always feel it when they drink—and tend to naturally stay away from alcohol. (Asians and Asian-Americans have a higher incidence of this gene.)

Another theory is that hangovers are caused by the body’s inflammatory response to alcohol, which produces elevated levels of molecules called cytokines, which can cause all of the classic symptoms of a hangover.

Higher-than-normal cytokine have also been found to interfere with memory formation—which might account for the memory lapses some people experience when they drink heavily.

Finally, alcohol can irritate the stomach and intestines, which contributes to nausea and stomach pain. It can also cause lower or higher than normal blood sugar, which can affect how you feel.

Hangover Prevention and Cures

Not drinking too much is the only sure-fire way to prevent a hangover, but drinking lots of water, eating a meal before you drink and pacing yourself can help. So can sticking to clear alcohol like vodka or gin, rather than bourbon or rum.

Especially if the “inflammation” theory behind hangovers is correct, it can also help to take an anti-inflammatory such as Motrin or Aspirin. (Just don’t ever take Tylenol immediately after drinking as it puts extra stress on the liver.)

If you’re still feeling bad in the morning, drink more water and try downing a banana (potassium), eggs (cysteine), Gatorade (electrolytes), quinoa (amino acids) or toast (an easy-on-the-stomach way to get glucose).

Getting Help at The Raleigh House

The Raleigh House is a residential treatment center located in Denver that believes addiction isn’t just a physical problem. Our master’s level trained therapists get to the root cause of addiction and, with your loved one, will develop a strategy to manage and enjoy life without alcohol. Fill out our form or contact us today to learn more about the alcohol addiction treatment program at The Raleigh House.

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