Why Does a Hangover Happen?

Hangovers happen because you drank too much alcohol!  You can run, drink coffee and eat eggs but you cannot hide from a hangover, i.e., nausea and dizziness the morning after heavy drinking.  Here’s what the body does after cavorting and drinking itself into oblivion.

How Does The Body Digest Alcohol?

When you glug down alcohol and it travels through the esophagus, it hasn’t yet been absorbed.  As soon as alcohol touches the walls of the stomach, it diffuses into the bloodstream.  When food is present in the stomach, absorption occurs much more slowly simply because there is less surface area for the alcohol to be in contact with the stomach cells. Food therefore slows down the process by which alcohol gets absorbed, but it does not prevent alcohol from eventually entering into the blood stream.  Although alcohol is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and into the bloodstream, some can travel into the small intestine (the next phase of the digestive tract), where it gets absorbed into the blood stream even faster.

Once in the bloodstream, alcohol is transported to the liver to be digested, aka metabolized.  On average it takes about an hour to break down one drink. The more you drink, the longer it will take for the alcohol to be metabolized.  Here’s the fun part – there are two pathways of metabolism, and the one that the body chooses depends on how much alcohol you consume.  If you consumed …

A moderate amount (one drink for women and two drinks for men in one night): then the pathway the body uses, called the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) pathway, will easily break down all of the alcohol consumed and use it for energy.  One of the reasons why people say “alcohol makes you fat” is because the body must use alcohol it consumes–it cannot be stored.  As a result, anything you do eat will be stored in the fat tissue and/or used for energy.  Drinking a moderate amount allows the body to use energy from food and from alcohol as needed.

A high amount (the widely accepted definition of binge drinking is having four+ drinks (females) and five+ drinks (males) in one night): then the pathway the body uses, called the microsomal ethanol-oxidizing system (MEOS), will leave behind free radicals, which damages liver cells.  Eating more food, as mentioned above, can only slow down the rate of alcohol absorption.  When drinking in excess, you want to eat food since it allows your liver more time to metabolize the alcohol; on the other hand, most food at this level of drinking is stored as fat.

The Hangover Part

With excessive amounts, your blood-alcohol level may remain elevated for many hours.  After you’ve gone to bed and allowed some time for your liver to clean up shop, there are still a few things that happen in the body:

Dehydration – alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it causes you to urinate more often.  Having dry-mouth and feeling thirsty and dizzy are some of the consequences.

Stomach Lining Tenderness – alcohol reacts with the lining of the stomach, as mentioned above.  Since it is very acidic, symptoms can include upset stomach aches to nausea to vomiting.

Vasodilation – alcohol is a vasodilator, which means it can help widen the blood vessels.  This can also cause headaches.

Sleep-disruption – you may think you’re sleeping like a baby, but the quality of sleep is pretty rotten and affects both hormone secretion and the body’s temperature.  People relate alcohol-disturbed sleep to feeling jet-lagged.

Low-blood sugar – glucose (sugar) is the main source of fuel for the brain but alcohol can disturb metabolism of glucose because it, too, is an energy source and cannot be stored.  Glucose will therefore be low in the blood and can cause low blood sugar in the morning. This can lead to fatigue and mood changes.  That’s why a good breakfast always helps 🙂


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