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Not feeling too well after St. Patrick's Day? The medical science of a hangover

March 18, 2016

Saint Patrick’s Day has come and gone. But, if you overindulged too much yesterday (and we hope you didn't), you may be feeling the ill effects today. It's called a hangover, and many know the symptoms - headache, nausea and fatigue - but what exactly is a hangover and what is actually happening to your body?

Dr. Booker Bush is a primary care physician, who specializes in addiction, at the Baystate Health High Street Health Center. In the following paragraphs, he breaks down the science behind a hangover and offers tips on how to manage symptoms the morning after drinking too much alcohol.

What is a hangover?

Most people who drink too much alcohol feel terrible the next day and there are good reasons for that. First, when you’re drinking, the body has to break down all that alcohol. During the breakdown process, the PH level in in your blood actually becomes a bit more acidic. There are a number of chemical reactions that normally occur in a healthy and normal functioning human body. More acid in the blood stream causes a number of those chemical reactions to not work as well. This leads to the sick and groggy feeling that many people experience the day after having too much to drink.

Alcohol also turns off the production of Anti Diuretic Hormone (ADH) that’s released from your brain. The lack of ADH causes you to urinate more frequently. Despite the fact that you’re drinking fluids, you actually end up putting out more than you’re taking in, resulting in dehydration. If you drink to the point that you vomit, the excess loss of fluids will only make the dehydration worse. When people visit the emergency department after having too much to drink, the first thing done is to give them an IV of fluids. This usually replenishes the fluids their bodies have lost, and helps them feel a little better.

Along with the headache and nausea, many people feel fatigued after a night of drinking. After drinking too much, many people go to bed because the alcohol makes them feel really sleepy. However, you won’t get much sleep when you’re drunk. Alcohol disrupts your REM (Rapid Eye Motion) or dream sleep and causes people to not get a good night’s rest. Most people will notice that they wake up a lot throughout the night, despite feeling sleepy and falling asleep. This leads to their tired, unrested feeling.

Who’s at greater risk?

When it comes to drinking, alcohol has a different effect on women than men. If a man and a woman are drinking the same amount of the same alcoholic drink, the woman’s alcohol level will always be higher than the man’s. The reason: there are distinct physiological differences between the male and female body. First, alcohol resides in the watery places of the body. As a whole, women have more fat in their body than men do, so their alcohol levels in the blood stream will be higher. A woman’s stomach works differently than a man’s. Women actually have less of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the wall of their stomach, resulting in more alcohol entering the bloodstream. It’s also been found that if a woman is ovulating or at the midpoint of her menstrual cycle, her body will absorb alcohol more completely.

Less likely to give you a hangover

While drinking too much of any alcohol will give you a hangover the next day, there are some options that could help or hurt how you’re feeling the morning after. Some things to keep in mind: if you drink alcohol mixed with milk or cream, your body will absorb the alcohol more slowly. On the other hand, when you drink alcohol in a carbonated form like beer or champagne, the alcohol is absorbed more quickly.

Do home remedies work?

Many people believe that taking an aspirin or a product containing aspirin will help you not feel as hung over the next day. Back in the '40s and '50s, Alka Seltzer and their “Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz” ads claimed to cure hangovers. It’s a home remedy that many people still use today. However, doctors don’t recommend this method because aspirin mixed with alcohol can cause bleeding in the stomach. Also, when drinking, your stomach breaks down Tylenol or acetaminophen very fast and that can lead to liver damage.

Unfortunately, the only true cure for a hangover is to watch your alcohol consumption.

What’s the best way to cope with a hangover?

There is no real cure for a hangover. . Your best bet is to try to ease some of the symptoms. To keep from feeling dehydrated, be sure to drink lots of fluids, so that you stay hydrated. Try to drink a glass of water in between each drink to replenish any fluid you may have lost.

Along with staying hydrated, you want to be sure you eat. If you have food in your stomach, you don‘t absorb the alcohol as quickly. The food helps slow down how fast the alcohol level rises in your bloodstream.

There is much interest in a pill that you can take to cure a hangover. However, the real answer is hangovers teach you something and are the way your body tells you that something is wrong: that if you’re having an excess number or hangovers, then there’s a problem.

Can hangovers have any long-term health effects

It’s not the hangover that is the real problem. Drinking too much on a single occasion or over time, can have serious effects on the body, including on the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, your immune system, and even increase your risk of some cancers.

Drinking heavily also impairs your judgment. It’s important to remember to be safe and not to drink and drive, so as to endanger your live and the lives of others.