What Causes Hangovers?

The short answer is drinking is what causes hangovers - but the long answer is more complex than that.

If you've ever had a crazy night of drinking while in college, then you already know the horrors of waking up with a bad hangover. You also may know the shock of waking up next to your best friend in the middle of a fairy ring of beer bottles, chocolate bar wrappers, and vomit. And, you may also know what it feels like to realize you're walking around campus with a less-than-appealing temporary tattoo drawn on your forehead with a Sharpie. 

But, this isn't about all the aftermath of drinking - this is about hangovers. Once you wake up with a hangover, you probably want to know what caused the hangover in the first place. The short answer is drinking - but the long answer is a lot more complex than you'd think. 

Let's first talk about alcohol's many qualities.

Alcohol has three qualities that work together to make hangovers. First off, it's a diuretic, which means that it will end up making you pee out water. Second, it gets decomposed into two different substances as it gets digested - one of which is a toxic substance called acetaldehyde. Third, it also is a stomach irritant. 

These all can cause problems that contribute to hangovers, however, no one knows for sure what is the main cause of a hangover. Even so, scientists could figure out how each element makes it worse - and how our own immune systems could make things even worse for some. 

How alcohol's diuretic quality makes hangovers worse.

You probably have drank a bit and "broke the seal" at one point or another in your life. The reason why alcohol is infamous for making you pee is because it suppresses your body's ability to hold in urine. When you pee more, you lose more water. Moreover, people don't typically drink water when they're busy guzzling alcohol. 

Studies have shown that people with hangovers have the same level of electrolytes as others, so dehydration isn't the only cause of it. However, those pounding headaches you get are a sign that your brain is trying to get more fluid to your skull by dilating your blood vessels. So, drinking water can help. 

This is why you may puke during a hangover.

Alcohol is a stomach irritant, so drinking a lot of it tends to make you queasy. This is why you end up puking while at the party. After the night is over, our bodies are still creating higher levels of gastric acid, intestinal juice, and pancreatic fluid. 

All that extra acid and fluids tend to cause nausea, since an easy way to "rebalance" the body is through vomiting. But, it's not only the stomach irritation that makes us feel so pukey - it's also the way that we metabolize alcohol. 

Your liver isn't really helping, either.

As we've said before, our livers process alcohol into a number of different compounds, one of which is acetaldehyde. This is a compound that is 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself, and stays longer in the body than the fun stuff you drank last night. 

Acetaldehyde is seriously terrible for you in a number of ways. Mentally, it's been linked to depression, anxiety, and even memory problems. Because of its acidity and toxicity, it also has been linked to Leaky Gut Syndrome and stomach, liver, and intestinal inflammation. 

Since this compound does harm your stomach and intestines, you will likely continue to feel nauseous for a while after alcohol has left your system. 

Sometimes your own body will make things worse, too.

Depending on what enzymes your body creates to break down alcohol, your body may actually have a harder time dealing with acetaldehyde - or it may take longer to break down alcohol. This can make you have terrible hangovers while most of the other people you know won't. 

Moreover, your body's immune system may start to attack alcohol's compounds using in-body compounds called cytokines. This can make you feel fatigued, sick, and just generally crappy. 

Obviously, the best way to avoid a hangover is to drink in moderation.

But, what would be the fun in that? Life's too short not to get wasted once in a while, right? 

Skunk Uzeki
Skunk Uzeki

Skunk Uzeki is an androgynous pothead and a hard partier.  When they aren't drinking and causing trouble, they're writing articles about the fun times they have. 

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What Causes Hangovers?