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What is a Hangover?

Garry Crystal
Garry Crystal

If you have ever drunk more alcohol than you should, then you are no stranger to the symptoms of a hangover. The throbbing head, dry throat, queasy stomach and inability to get out of bed will all be familiar feelings. These conditions cost countries billions of dollars a year in absenteeism.

Alcohol is a diuretic, and drinking too much causes the body to dehydrate. It also causes the drinker to urinate more, losing more fluids from the body. It is the dehydration of the brain that causes the intense headaches of a hangover. The brain shrinks slightly when dehydrated and moves away from the skull.

Dehydration of the brain is what causes hangovers.
Dehydration of the brain is what causes hangovers.

Like any drug, alcohol introduces toxins or poisons into the body. In order to cope with these toxins, the body produces enzymes to combat them and remove them from the body. It is the amount of toxins one ingests that are the biggest contributors to the severity of the symptoms.

Pure alcohol or ethanol is supposedly toxin-free. Experts say that toxins present in the additives of drinks do the harm. There are many poisons and chemicals in alcoholic drinks that produce these toxins. Wine has a very large amount of additives, while pure vodka has relatively little. Many people attest that drinking pure vodka will not produce a hangover, while drinking wines causes some of the worst symptoms.

Pure vodka, which might be used in a screwdriver, has few additives.
Pure vodka, which might be used in a screwdriver, has few additives.

Many people find it difficult to obtain a good night’s sleep after a good night’s drinking. The amount of alcohol consumed prevents the brain from performing its normal sleep tasks. In effect, the brain has been drugged by the alcohol. The brain may be unable to reach the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle of sleep. This is the main cycle of sleep, in which the body achieves dreams and maximum quality rest.

Many people find that drinking too much wine gives them a serious hangover.
Many people find that drinking too much wine gives them a serious hangover.

Mixing your drinks is also a quick way to inebriation and a hangover. If you mix drinks, then you are mixing together the different poisons within the drinks. The liver has to work extra hard to get rid of these toxins by flushing them out, which again causes more dehydration.

There are hundreds of cures for hangovers, often passed from person to person. Everyone has their own remedy. Prevention methods include eating large meals before drinking. This lines the stomach and slows down the alcohol entering the bloodstream. Drinking water before sleeping does, in some cases, stop dehydration from occurring and prevent headaches.

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Discussion Comments


Eat a good meal before drinking and finish it off with a shake or malt. Then do what the person above said: "alternate alcoholic beverage with water". Also, get over your shyness and get out and dance! It will help burn off the alcohol. You'll have a good time and feel fine the next day.


I was not aware that pure ethanol could not cause hangovers. I just assumed it was the who process of alcohol consumption and the bodily processes that went along with expelling it.

I guess then that would explain why I usually don't get very bad hangovers whenever I have vodka. I guess unfortunately for me, I don't really care for a lot of drinks made with vodka. I do like gin, though, and I believe it too is probably low on the hangover scale. It usually doesn't give me any problems outside of some rare cases of nausea.

Drinks like tequila and rum, though, kill me. Apparently they have more toxins. Whenever I drink them, I always end up with a headache and usually vomiting. For me, though, the worst part is usually just the "off" feeling you have for the entire day after drinking a lot.


@seag47 - I know a lot of people who take aspirin or Tylenol before bed after they have been drinking, but this can be very dangerous. Even though people think of them as basic drugs, they are still a type of medication that should never be mixed with alcohol.

Since aspirin naturally thins the blood, taking it with alcohol has been known to cause internal bleeding and other side effects. I believe Tylenol or any product with acetaminophen can often have worse consequences.

Acetaminophen needs enzymes from the liver to break down the chemicals. Obviously, alcohol is very taxing on the liver, as well. When the two are mixed, they are both competing for the liver's resources and can cause some very serious complications. Taking them together one time might not send you to the hospital, but doing it over several years could seriously damage your liver, kidneys, and other organs.


I have also heard that chasers and hangovers go together. What you are drinking along with the alcohol can play a huge role in how you feel the next day. I don't know all of the science behind how the drinks work, but I have found certain results with drinks and have known several other people who have found the same thing.

Sugary drinks like colas usually tend to leave me with the worst hangovers. Maybe there is something about the way the body processes the sugars along with the alcohol that causes a problem. Since they have less caffeine, I don't think sodas are as much of a problem, but drinking energy drinks with alcohol can be extremely dangerous. Since one is a depressant and another a stimulant, the two drinks start to try to counteract each other, which isn't good for your heart. I am pretty sure people have actually died from drinking energy drinks with liquor.


@kylee07drg - Alternating drinks is a great strategy. I also have picked up another trick from a friend of mine that doesn't drink much. She is usually the designated driver for us, which is good, because she doesn't care to get drunk in the first place.

Instead of ordering alcohol, she will just ask the bartender for an orange juice or coke or something that would be mixed with alcohol. Whenever anyone sees her glass, they just assume that there is some type of alcohol in it and don't try to pressure her into drinking when she doesn't feel like it.

I think that is also a great trick for people in college who like to go to parties and have a good time, but don't want to get pressured into drinking too much and feeling bad the next day.


@SarahGen-- I know that nausea is very common with hangovers but vomiting all night sounds like something more serious. Perhaps you have an alcohol allergy? Or maybe you had alcohol poisoning at that time?

Alcohol poisoning is different than a hangover and is much more serious. I understand some people might get hangovers more than others. But getting so sick with just one drink doesn't sound normal. You might have something more serious going on and not realizing it.

I only get a hangover if I drink when I'm hungry and when I have too much. If I eat right before and if I don't cross my limits (over 5 drinks), I never get a hangover.

@giddion-- I don't think that has to do with our brain shrinking but seriously that's so scary. I wonder what would happen if the brain remained dehydrated like that for a while?

These are kind of random but I've heard that both yogurt and coffee is really good for hangovers. I actually don't know how coffee would help because it would just dehydrate you further. But I can see how yogurt would help because it's good for the stomach.

When I have a hangover, I drink lots of water. I just keep a couple of bottles of water with me and sip on it all day. I also eat things that settle the stomach like bread, potatoes and the like. If I had a headache then I might take an aspirin or other painkiller. This usually does the trick for me.


I have a very low alcohol tolerance so I get drunk very quickly and a hangover is always guaranteed for me. I honestly don't remember a time when I didn't get a hangover, even if I just had two beers or one single cocktail.

My hangovers are horrible. Not only do I get a migraine and nausea but I also vomit. And it is not true that drinks like vodka don't cause a hangover, they absolutely do. The last time I had vodka, I vomited all night and I spent the entire next day in bed. My head hurt so much and my nausea didn't go away until the next day.

It's because of these hangover symptoms that I don't drink any more. I used to enjoy a drink every now and then but I'm so tired of being sick the day after. I don't want to lose an entire day because of a drink.


@JessicaLynn - I think some people use trouble sleeping as an excuse to indulge in a glass of wine before bed. But, some people really do think it helps you sleep!

I used to be one of those people that would have a glass of wine if I had trouble sleeping, but I'd always wonder why I felt so "off" the next day. Finally I stumbled on an article that talked about how alcohol can disrupt your sleep. Now I just have a cup of hot herbal tea if I'm having trouble sleeping. It works just as well, but I actually feel rested the next day.


I think it's so interesting that alcohol can disrupt your sleep. I know a lot of people who drink a glass of wine before bed to help themselves fall asleep. I wonder if they know they aren't getting very good quality sleep with this method? Even if they don't get a drinking hangover from one glass of wine, it still seems kind of harmful to do this on a daily basis.


@dautsun - Not drinking at all really is easier said than done. Drinking is really engrained in our culture, and so many events involve alcohol. So I can understand why some people just drink, and then want to know how to prevent a hangover after overindulging.

I've found that the best way to minimize the hangover is to stay hydrated. If I'm going out drinking, I usually try to drink a sports drink before bed, and keep one on my nightstand for the next morning. This isn't a complete solution to the hangover problem, but it helps quite a bit.


I've never really tried any hangover cures that work, so I agree with the article that the only way to prevent a hangover is to drink sensibly. Or, just don't drink at all! I know that's easier said then done, but these days I just don't find the hangover worth it at all.


@StarJo – For me, the headache is the worst part. I get an actual migraine, and no hangover remedy seems to work for this.

I drink during social functions after work. I actually feel pressured into drinking by my boss and the clients that come to these parties. I am supposed to look like I am having a good time, and if I stay sober, I just don't appear to be relaxed and happy.

I'm going to start alternating my alcoholic drinks with juice or water. That way, I'll still get a buzz, but perhaps I won't dehydrate so badly, and this will hopefully keep the migraine from arriving the next day.


I didn't know that there were actual hangover pills available now. It's been a long time since I have had any alcohol, so I'm not up on the new ways to deal with hangovers.

I do know what my friends and I did to prevent them in college. We would take aspirin before going to bed after drinking. This really did help stave off the morning hangover.


I think that hangover nausea is the worst symptom. I can deal with the headache and the dry mouth, but the nausea is debilitating.

Some people have no problem vomiting when they have a hangover, but for some reason, I never can. I just have this all-encompassing nausea that makes me yearn to vomit.

Peppermint tea helps out a little bit. However, nothing can really cure it but time.


So, the brain actually shrinks when you drink? That is so very much in line with how a person's behavior is altered by alcohol!

Your inhibitions shrink, as well, along with your good judgment. Perhaps this is really because your brain is a little bit smaller!


@submariner- The best food depend on your hangover symptoms. Bananas help cure headaches by replenishing lost magnesium. Bananas are also easy on the stomach because of their antacid effect. Proteins will counteract the effects of alcohol and help to stabilize blood sugar levels. Sports drinks, water, and vitamin B will help to rehydrate the body, and relieve headaches and nauseousness.


What is the best hangover food?


I never really thought of the economic impacts of hangovers until reading this article. It amazes me that the economy loses $149 billion in economic productivity due to alcohol.

After thinking about this though, I wonder how much of this is attributed to the corporate culture itself. There have been a countless number of business deals and connections made over a night of drinks. Companies even promote getting drunk during leadership conferences and employee bonding activities. I wonder how much economic output is attributable to alcohol. It would probably far outpace the economic production attributed to hangovers.

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    • Dehydration of the brain is what causes hangovers.
      By: adimas
      Dehydration of the brain is what causes hangovers.
    • Pure vodka, which might be used in a screwdriver, has few additives.
      By: quayside
      Pure vodka, which might be used in a screwdriver, has few additives.
    • Many people find that drinking too much wine gives them a serious hangover.
      By: Ruslan Semichev
      Many people find that drinking too much wine gives them a serious hangover.
    • Drinking water can relieve the dehydration that makes up part of a hangover.
      By: Elenathewise
      Drinking water can relieve the dehydration that makes up part of a hangover.
    • Hangovers result in intense headaches and queasiness.
      By: Lisa F. Young
      Hangovers result in intense headaches and queasiness.
    • Vomiting may occur when dealing with a hangover.
      By: Lars Zahner
      Vomiting may occur when dealing with a hangover.
    • The only way to completely prevent a hangover is to refrain from drinking alcohol.
      By: WavebreakmediaMicro
      The only way to completely prevent a hangover is to refrain from drinking alcohol.
    • Vodka has relatively few additives, which may lead to fewer hangovers.
      By: stokkete
      Vodka has relatively few additives, which may lead to fewer hangovers.
    • Stomach cramps and nausea are symptoms of a hangover.
      By: apops
      Stomach cramps and nausea are symptoms of a hangover.