Pounding headache, dry mouth, queasy stomach: You feel like you’re dying. But if you had a few too many drinks last night, you probably just have a hangover.
Beyond the fatigue and massive headache, physical symptoms of a hangover include increased sensitivity to light and sound, muscle aches, eye redness, and thirst, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. You may also find yourself feeling sweaty, dizzy, and extra- irritable.
Blame Your Hangover On the Congeners
Congeners are chemical byproducts of the alcohol fermentation process, found more prominently in darker liquor such as red wine, bourbon, brandy, whiskey, and dark-colored beers. Think of them as your worst hangover nightmare. While they enhance the taste and smell of the alcohol, researchers believe congeners, essentially toxins to the body, also lead to hangovers. A 2009 study found that people who drank bourbon (which contains 37 times more congeners than vodka) experienced a more severe hangover than those who drank similar amounts of vodka.
But that doesn’t mean you should go around slugging vodka sodas all night. You can still get a hangover from drinking clear alcoholic beverages (vokda, gin, white wine, light-colored beers) if you drink too much of it.
The Science Behind the Symptoms
Biologically, hangover woes mostly come down to dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that it helps the body get rid of fluids. When you have a severe hangover, you’re often severely dehydrated, and the body can’t get rid of the byproducts of metabolizing alcohol (metabolites). And those metabolites are irritating.
It’s the dehydration that causes the fatigue, dry mouth, nausea, and vomiting.
Aside from the severe lack of water in your body, drinking heavily irritates the stomach lining, relaxes the muscles of the lower esophagus (causing reflux), and has a depressing effect on brain cells (hence the lack of coordination, decreased response time, and dizziness). It also lowers your blood sugar, and being hypoglycemic can also leave you feeling weak.
Why Do Some People ‘Never’ Get Hangovers?
Everyone has at least one friend who claims to never get hangovers. While it might be genetic, it’s more likely those people simply drink smartly. Individuals respond differently to alcohol, based on factors like body size, how fast you drink, and the amount of food and water you consume during a night out. Metabolism has something to do with it, too. The speed at which alcohol and its byproducts are metabolized can affect your level of drunkenness and the severity of your hangover.
On the other hand, some people may be genetically prone to get hangovers. Some people break down a product of alcohol metabolism called acetaldehyde slowly, resulting in flushing and nausea from drinking alcohol. Research shows that this genetic trait occurs in almost half of people of Asian descent.
So, How Do You Prevent a Hangover?
The only surefire way not to get a hangover is to watch how much you drink (sorry). But chugging a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage is a great way to combat the dehydration. And it makes things a lot more bearable if you don’t have to wake up early the next morning. Getting enough sleep after a night of drinking can also help mitigate symptoms such as fatigue and headache, given the disruption of sleep caused by the alcohol. You should also try to eat a meal before you hit the bar, so your body doesn’t absorb the alcohol as quickly as it would on an empty stomach. In the morning, drink lots water and eat something high carb and high sugar, such as toast with honey, to boost your blood sugar. Don’t overdo it on caffeine, but if you’re a java-addict, remember to have your morning cup of joe to avoid going through coffee withdrawal on top of your hangover.
A number of so-called hangover cures and preemptive products, from patches to effervescent tablets, have also hit the market. They claim to ease and prevent the dreaded morning after, but the health benefits aren’t proven.