If you’ve witnessed the euphoric high that comes with alcoholic intoxication, chances are that you’ve also suffered from a crippling hangover the next day. A hangover that makes you want to hide in your bed and forget anything else exists, that makes you question the point of your very existence and if it’s all worth it.
Not only do hangovers plague individuals, they can also screw over the economy. It’s estimated that hangovers cost $148 billion every single year, with an average annual cost of $2,000 per working adult, (as reported by a 2000 study in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine) due to employees skipping work and because the soldiers that power through the pain remain less productive.
The vast majority of us have been there, but what causes it? Why do some drinks cause worse hangovers than others? And how can I avoid this cursed manifestation of hell on earth?
First things first. What causes a hangover?
Conventional wisdom would suggest that hangovers are a result of dehydration. Conventional wisdom is wrong. Sure, a night of boozing would dehydrate you – alcohol is a diuretic, which is why you keep needing the loo when drinking, and you’re not drinking any water so there’s loads flowing out but nothing flowing in.
However, that’s not the cause of the hangover, it’s just another side effect. Studies have shown that there is no correlation between the hormones associated with dehydration and the severity of the hangover, implying that the hangover and the dehydration are separate factors that happen to strike simultaneously.
So, if it’s not dehydration, what is it?
Most scientists believe the actual hangover is caused by a disturbance in the chemical balance of the body in a rather more complicated way. According their research, hangovers result from a build-up of a chemical called acetaldehyde.
The body cannot actually store all those G&Ts, jaeger bombs and beers. Believe it or not, that’s not how we’re programmed. Instead, it breaks down the alcohol into simpler molecules that it can actually store in a three-step process.
Firstly, the alcohol is partially oxidised in the liver by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase to the highly toxic acetaldehyde. Then, it takes the body some time to convert this into the harmless acetate which is finally excreted from the body as carbon dioxide and water.
The time period after the alcohol is broken down into acetaldehyde and before it is broken further into acetate is known to us as the hangover – a phenomenon so notorious that they even made a blockbuster film series about it.
Acetaldehyde is 10-30 times as toxic as the alcohol itself. Studies have established direct links between acetaldehyde and symptoms like sweating, skin flushing, nausea and vomiting. Sound familiar? You now know the culprit.
Do some drinks cause worse hangovers than others?
Yes. So choose your poison carefully. Obviously the more alcohol you consume, the worse your hangover will be, but let’s pretend you were to only drink a set number of units of alcohol in any form of your choice (so wine, beer, spirits etc). Which would give you the least severe hangover?
So far we’ve seen how alcohol causes production of toxic acetaldehyde in the body, but there’s one more chemical in alcoholic drinks that also contributes to making your morning (or day depending on how heavily you drink…) a living hell.
These are called congeners, and are produced alongside alcohol in the fragmentation process. Chemically, ethanol is what we know as alcohol but methanol is a congener – the difference is just the number of carbon and hydrogen atoms in each molecule of the chemical.
Studies have shown that drinks with a higher concentration of congeners (these tend to be darker in colour, like bourbon and whiskey) lead to more severe hangovers than lower congener concentration drinks (which tend to be lighter like vodka, which actually has none).
A group of Dutch researchers studied precisely the congener concentration and hangover severity that results from each of our favourite drinks. What follows next is the results – a figure we believe should be handed out to every incoming university fresher instead of those big, thick and largely useless (un)essential information packs.
Moral of the story kids: don’t go too hard on the old brandy in your local student bar. You’re welcome.
Why dirty pints are really the worst
Ok, great, I know what to drink but why do I end up more of a mess mixing beer and spirits than sipping the same alcoholic volume of red wine?
Methanol (found particularly in whiskey and red wine) is, in fact, just one of a whole host of congeners. It is the most damaging as it can linger long in the body after the alcohol has gone, causing the particularly enduring hangovers which is why it’s the most well-known. There are many different types of congeners. If you think these congeners are bad news on their own, wait until they mix…
Each congener has its own effect. Some will make you feel particularly sick, others will give you particularly severe headaches. When we mix drinks, we mix their congeners as well. So rather than just suffering from the symptoms of one congener, you suffer from the symptoms of many.
As a species, we’ve gone to the moon, even sent rovers to Mars, so surely we can brew a drink that doesn’t cause a hangover the next morning?
Synthetic Alcohol Substitutes
So far, all scientists have managed is to mix electrolytes into the beer. This reduces dehydration but, as discussed before, there’s a lot more to a hangover than dehydration. These drinks are essentially as good as mixing water with your beer.
However, fear not. It’s in the pipeline. Researchers at Imperial University are working on a synthetic chemical that target the same chemicals in the brain that alcohol mimics to provide us with the pleasurable feeling of being drunk.
However, they are also working to remove some of the toxins that cause the negative side effects we experience such as addiction, aggression and memory loss. This research, whilst fascinating, is in its nascent stage and is likely to take many years to come to market. Imagine when it does arrives though – a drink that gets you drunk, but doesn’t make call up your ex, get violent, or blackout. Besides saving us a terrible hangover the next day, this drink also promises to rid a lot of social evil that comes with excessive alcohol consumption, after all almost 2.5 million deaths worldwide each year are attributed to alcohol consumption.
I’m now at the cutting edge of hangover research, but how do I prevent having them?
We’re not going to regurgitate a bunch of things you probably already know like make sure you eat, and drink water. We’re also not going to show sass by claiming the best way to prevent a hangover is to not drink alcohol at all. Nor are we going to promote the granny’s remedies that all sound a little farfetched as summarised in the image of global hangover cures below:
Source: National Geographic
The Dutch are a wonderful people with many great qualities but we’re not so sure their cure will work. Unless you plan to stay drunk all day every day that is…
The simplest answer is to make your body more robust to hangovers. So when you do go big, you’ll suffer a little less the next morning. There are many factors in play here: body mass, water intake, age, positivity of attitude, food and how frequent a drinker you are. However, the one factor that is healthiest to increase, something YOU can actually change, and provides a long term solution is exercise. The fitter you are, the quicker your hangovers will be over.
Metabolism is linked to fitness, and is the chemical process that breaks down food to provide us with energy. It is the essential chemical process to maintaining life. The more aerobic exercise you do, the better your metabolism will be. Metabolism also happens to be the chemical process that breaks alcohol into acetaldehyde and then to acetate. So a fit person’s quick metabolism gets them through a hangover much faster than someone less fit who will feel sorry for themselves late into the day.
Celebrated wordsmith PG Wodehouse once described a hangover as “that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you’re going to die in about five minutes,” and Robert Benchley said that “The only cure for a real hangover is death.” We’re not denying that – they’re both right. But at least the next time you’re suffering, you’ll know exactly why…
Interested in more Chemistry?
Your immune system also takes a hit: Acetaldehyde isn’t the only culprit – there’s a chemical called cytokines too
As well as messing with your balance, your speech and your standards (see beer goggles), alcohol messes with your immune system. Studies show strong correlation between high levels of cytokines, a molecule used by the immune system for signalling, and hangover symptoms. Usually cytokines are used to trigger a fever to respond to infection, but the evidence would suggest that alcohol also stimulates cytokine release. This is associated with symptoms like muscle aches, fatigue, headaches, nausea and even memory loss.
Okay, so is that why I can’t remember anything from the night before?
Cytokines are used for signalling, which means they communicate with the brain. Cytokine receptors (where a cytokine “docks” to deliver its message) are particularly concentrated in the hippocampus – the part of the brain that plays a vital role in memory function. In 2001, an experiment found that there was a significant correlation between cytokines and memory loss that could last for up to 10 hours, strongly suggesting that cytokine is the reason for the frustration and paranoia you experience when you can’t remember what you said when you drunk dialled your crush the night before.