The Edmond Sun

December 28, 2012

How hangovers work (and how to avoid them)


Special to The Sun

OKLAHOMA CITY — Monday night, many Oklahomans will stay up a few hours later than usual. They’ll imbibe a few more drinks than usual. And then on Tuesday morning, they will be in a little more pain than usual.

“Whether you’re ringing in the New Year, celebrating a birthday or just having a couple of cocktails with your friends, the consequences of drinking too much alcohol can catch up to anyone,” said OMRF President Dr. Stephen Prescott.

Like any other medical condition, there’s a proper medical name for a hangover: Velsalgia. The name comes from the Norwegian word “kveis” (uneasiness after debauchery) and the Greek work “algia” (pain).

Velsalgia can cause a number of varying symptoms, including nausea, headache, sensitivity to bright lights or loud noises, and diarrhea. But why?

“The hangover is not as well-studied as the effects of alcoholism and addiction,” Prescott said. “But most doctors agree that dehydration is a key component.”

One way alcohol causes dehydration is by blocking the creation of the hormone vasopressin in the pituitary gland. Vasopressin tells the body to absorb water, so when too much alcohol is consumed, instead of taking in the liquid, the kidneys send it straight to the bladder instead.

For every 250 milliliters of alcohol consumed, the body gets rid of about 900 milliliters of water (along with electrolytes including potassium and magnesium), causing dehydration, Prescott said.

And even without alcohol, dehydration can cause headaches and body weakness. Why? Because water makes the body work, so the body gets very greedy when there’s less of it to go around. Organs pull water from the brain, causing it to shrink in size, which then pulls on the membranes connecting it to the skull.

“That headache may seem like a nuisance, but the truth is, it’s a warning — drink some water or things will get worse,” he said. “Mild dehydration causes headaches. Severe dehydration can cause brain damage, seizures and even death.”

If alcohol is causing these problems, why do some drinks make it even worse? The culprit is something called congeners. The more color and flavor an alcohol has, the more congeners are inside.

“The myth that you can’t get a hangover from drinking vodka is false. But it is true that darker alcohols, like rum, red wine and whiskey, are more likely to cause hangovers,” Prescott said.

Different congeners contain different chemicals, including acetone (which is used to dissolve plastics), acetaldehyde (a pollutant in car exhaust) and others. When the body tries to process the alcohol, it encounters these toxins, which cause a variety of symptoms.

Avoiding a hangover isn’t that difficult, Prescott said. Reduce the amount of alcohol and you reduce the body’s workload in getting rid of the alcohol.

“Another great idea is to make sure you’re hydrated before you start drinking and to continue taking in water as the evening progresses,” he said. “But avoid caffeinated beverages. Caffeine actually speeds up the process of cells taking in alcohol.”

Eating before drinking also slows the process, which is why drinking on an empty stomach is a bad idea, he said.

Prescott said another vital preparation for a night out drinking is for people to either find a designated driver or program the number of a taxi service into their mobile phones.

“A hangover may feel bad, but an arrest for drunken driving or having a deadly accident is much worse,” he said. “If you’re irresponsible enough to drive when you’ve been drinking alcohol, you’re not responsible enough to drink alcohol in the first place.”

For those who do end up with a hangover the next day, there is some relief, he said. A breakfast of water, eggs, bananas and fruit juice can do wonders to counteract the effects of overindulgence. Not only will you rehydrate your body, you’ll add back some of those vital electrolytes and sugars that left you after several trips to the bathroom.

“That doesn’t mean an instant end to a hangover,” he said. “But after a night of fun, a speedy recovery sounds like a real New Year’s celebration to me.”