“Alcohol affects all organs”: the hangover and how to survive it | Alcohol
“Alcohol is a ‘dirty drug’,” says Emily Palmer, a researcher at Imperial College London who studies hangovers. “It impacts multiple systems in the brain.”
Scientists don’t know exactly what happens to our bodies during a hangover, but they do know that it’s caused by a variety of biochemical and neurochemical changes. “It doesn’t just affect the liver or the brain,” Palmer says, “it affects almost every organ.”
This Christmas, many of us will be celebrating with a drink or two or three. So is it possible to spend the morning after the previous night unscathed?
The slippery slope
“You have your first drink and a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid – or Gaba – is released in the brain,” says Rayyan Zafar, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London and a researcher for the Drug Science charity.
“Gaba slows down the brain,” he continues. “It acts on the receptors in the cortex, particularly on the parts involved in thought and control processes.”
Gaba reduces a nerve cell’s ability to send and receive chemical messages throughout the central nervous system. So for the first one to three drinks, when Gaba is released, you feel relaxed, Zafar says.
At the same time, you get a dopamine rush. “You feel good, you feel relaxed, and you want more,” Zafar says. But when you keep drinking, the alcohol binds to glutamate receptors in the brain, which are important for memory formation. Their electrical activity is suppressed, “essentially blocking the formation of memories,” says Zafar.
Alcohol moves from your cortex, which controls behavior, to the cerebellum, which is responsible for movement, motor coordination and balance.
Then alcohol poisoning hits the spinal cord, right in the middle of the brain. It controls autonomic systems, including heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. “The brain just shuts down,” says Zafar. “That’s why people call alcohol a depressant; not because it depresses you, but because it depresses the whole central nervous system.
Can I get drunk on non-alcoholic beer?
“Probably not,” reassures Zafar. “Let’s say an average pint of beer contains 5% alcohol, it would take 10 beers with a low alcohol content of 0.5% to have the same effect as a pint. I don’t think your body would be able to retain that much fluid.
The liver eliminates about one unit of alcohol per hour, and then the hangover sets in. Vomiting, Zafar explains, is an evolutionary survival tactic that developed as a way to eject harmful substances from the body. Maybe a little comfort when your head is hanging over the toilet bowl.
Alcohol is metabolized by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). When ADH breaks down ethanol, it forms acetaldehyde, a poison and carcinogen. When the blood alcohol content reaches zero, hangover symptoms are usually the most severe, because at this point all the alcohol has been converted into acetaldehyde, which alters the way DNA works.” explains Zafar.
Alcohol damages mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are the energy-producing machines in our cells, and even slight damage can lead to toxicity in the brain.
“If you regularly drink enough to cause a hangover, we think the damage can accumulate,” says Palmer, “leading to cognitive decline and early memory loss.”
Alcohol also suppresses the release of vasopressin, a hormone that signals the kidneys to retain fluids, which increases urination. The resulting dehydration can make you thirsty, tired and headaches.
“We think hydration is extremely important,” adds Zafar. “And by hydration, we don’t just mean water. We also talk about sodium, chloride and potassium.
When your body is damaged, your immune system is activated. It sends out inflammatory cells that attack bacteria or heal damaged tissue.
“When you drink alcohol, the gut signals that it has a poison in it,” says Zafar. “In response, your immune system ramps up to try and reverse the toxicity. This can lead to too much inflammation.
The body turned on itself. The inflammatory response can cause nausea, vomiting, headache, confusion, mood changes, cognitive impairment, and learning and memory deficits. Regularly drinking to excess can also lead to chronic inflammation, which is linked to diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Does a hangover get worse with age?
Metabolism is a word we might associate with the digestion of food, but the term actually describes all the chemical processes that take place in the body. “As you get older, your metabolism slows down, so it takes longer to recover,” says Zafar.
Palmer suggests it could also be due to a reduced tolerance due to less consumption as we age and our changing beverage preferences. “When we’re younger, maybe we drink something like vodka tonics,” he says. “Later, maybe we’ll drink wine or whiskey.”
Congeners, found in darker drinks, are a byproduct of the fermentation process. These are complex organic molecules with toxic effects such as acetone, acetaldehyde, fusel oil, tannins and furfural. Whiskey has been found to contain 37 times more congeners than vodka, and studies show that drinks with more congeners cause worse hangovers.
How can I prevent a hangover?
Drink less, of course. However, if you want to have a few drinks, there are some tactics that can help you avoid a hangover.
Dilute alcohol by adding ice, club soda, lemonade or other mixers. You’ll consume alcohol more slowly so your body has a better chance of processing the alcohol and your blood alcohol spike isn’t as high.
Choose your drinks
Avoid dark drinks like red wine or whiskey as they contain more congeners than light drinks like vodka or gin.
Eggs, says Zafar, contain the amino acid cysteine, which slows alcohol metabolism.
Can I cure my hangover?
Unfortunately no. According to researchers at King’s College London, there is no convincing evidence that so-called hangover cures work.
Their recent review evaluated clove extract, red ginseng, Korean pear juice and other supposed hangover remedies, and concluded that there was not enough evidence of high quality for any of them.
However, ibuprofen can help reduce inflammation and rehydration with isotonic drinks, such as sports drinks, can help replace lost fluids and ions, and can give you some relief.
Are some people immune to hangovers?
Some people are able to make alcohol dehydrogenase quickly to break down alcohol, and others can’t do it that quickly. It all depends on your genes.
“Those who are able to quickly regulate this enzyme and break down alcohol…probably don’t have a hangover,” says Zafar. “But they are more likely to develop an alcohol addiction because they can drink more without the negative effects.”
Restraint might be easier knowing the ensuing discomfort. “We want to try to prevent the damage we do to our bodies,” Palmer says, “rather than sticking plaster on it.”