There are several rituals associated with the morning after a night of heavy drinking. Checking your cell phone, wincing at the text messages that seemed hilarious and pivotal at 2 am — scratching your head when looking at your decimated bank balance until you find receipts for multiple rounds of shots at a late-night bar. Then there’s the hangover.
Ah, the hangover. A rite of passage that everybody needs to experience at least once. Most people associate a hangover with an aching head and feeling exhausted, but there’s far more to it. Your body is undergoing a reaction to your partying the night before.
Why do I feel like death this morning?
Because, in many respects, you flirted with death last night. That sounds melodramatic, but it’s true to an extent. Alcohol sparks narcosis, a condition described in the dictionary as “a state of stupor, drowsiness, or unconsciousness produced by drugs.” Eventually, narcosis leads to death.
Alcohol, in small doses, only causes minor narcosis. It restricts a small amount of brain activity – usually the parts associated with reflexes, comprehension, and decision-making. This is why small amounts of alcohol may boost your self-esteem and sense of confidence. It takes a lot more than most humans could drink in one night to actually kill us.
All the thoughts and fears that dominate your sober brain melt away when you drink alcohol. Toss in the fact that most alcoholic drinks also contain sugar, which releases dopamine, and you have a recipe for a good time. Your brain feels rewarded by alcohol. This is why all of your jokes seem 50% funnier, and you grow convinced that you have the singing voice of an angel.
Naturally, this encourages you to drink more. To heck with less is more. Just imagine how much more would be!
Bear with me. I need to throw up
That’s a key component to a hangover. The primary element of alcohol is the chemical compound ethanol. When you drink alcohol, ethanol is spread throughout your body. That’s why a warm glow matches your light-headedness throughout your organs.
Your body knows that ethanol is not supposed to be there, though, so it takes action. Your liver creates enzymes that break down the ethanol down into molecules. These molecules are known as ethanal (note the slightly different spelling.)
Your brain has a limit of what it considers to be a safe level of ethanol. Once this limit is reached and breached, the brain sends a warning message to the body. The ethanal must be purged, which will occur through vomiting. This is why you sometimes feel queasy amid a drinking session. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary.
So, what’s the cure?
Many people claim to have perfected the art of the hangover cure. For some, it’s a Bloody Mary cocktail – the hair of the dog that bit you. Some people will refuse to entertain anything other than a sizeable, greasy breakfast. Others have their own claims to wellness, often involving bizarre food and drink combinations.
Sadly, none of these supposed cures are scientifically sound. The fact is, there is no such thing as a hangover cure apart from patience. The remnants of the alcohol need to finish flushing themselves out of your system. This takes time.
You can minimize the impact of a hangover by drinking water before bed, though. You will no doubt notice that you need to urinate more when you drink. When sober, your pituitary gland (located at the base of the brain) creates a hormone called vasopressin.
This hormone is an anti-diuretic. In layman’s terms, it stops you from needing to pee every time you consume liquid. Alcohol restricts vasopressin, hence your constant trips to the bathroom. The more you pee, the more fluid you lose from your body. This leaves you dehydrated.
Does that explain the thumping headache?
It certainly does. Dehydration irritates blood vessels, causing them to swell and dilate. Blood flow to your head will become erratic, leading to a skull-splitting headache.
This also explains why your eyes twitch when hungover, and why your muscles ache and you feel reluctant to move. Until you’re appropriately rehydrated, you’ll continue to feel this way. Drinking fluid consistently helps.
You can speed up the process with electrolytes. Avoid Gatorade or energy drinks, though. These might provide temporary respite, but sugar and caffeine are diuretics. You’ll need to urinate more, which sheds yet more fluid from your body.
Like all things, hangovers eventually come to an end. You may start the day swearing never to touch alcohol again, but by the evening, you’re chuckling at the previous night’s escapades and looking forward to doing it all over again.
Just be prepared for your body to undertake the same process when you do. Alcohol consumption will forever remain as intrinsically linked as alcohol and lousy dancing. Nothing in this life is free, especially not a good time.
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