Hangovers and why we’re so familiar with them


SciTech Editor

It’s Freshers’ Week. We’re talking seven nights out on the trot, or at the very least a pint in the college bar. But, apart from making you nap through all your induction lectures, why do we get hangovers and why do some people not at all?

Hangovers are a product of excessive amounts of alcohol the night before. You might not need to be told, but they result in the disruption (or total avoidance) of everyday tasks, having both mental and physical impacts on the body.

Hangovers vary depending on the alcohol consumed, and rumour has it that red wine is good for you, but it can still leave lasting hangovers. So pick your formal wines carefully.

Whilst ethanol is the ultimate undoing of alcoholic beverages, drinks also contain by-products of the alcohol processing stages which are known as congeners. These include chemicals such as acetaldehyde, acetone and methanol, which add to the taste and aroma of a beverage. Once in the body, enzymes metabolise the congeners. However, some linger around longer than others. At high concentrations, the metabolised products of methanol can cause blindness, while at lower concentrations they have similarly significant, although less drastic symptoms. Support for this is demonstrated by alcohols containing more methanol, such as whisky, brandy and red wine, which give more pronounced hangovers than those with less methanol, such as white wine, vodka and gin.

A hangover induces a sort of ‘jet-lag’ effect as the nightly sleep is disrupted

Alcohol is toxic to the body, so the immune system gets involved in its expulsion. To remove alcohol from the body we produce chemicals called cytokines, which have several jobs in immune responses to infection. The cytokines produced after alcohol consumption contribute to the inflammatory response and lead to hangover symptom development.

Humans contain over 1000 species of microbiota in the body, with most of them necessary for bodily functions to be carried out. But how do 3 jäger bombs for £5 relate to all those microbiota? Several studies have shown that alcohol consumption causes changes in the intestinal and oral microbiota compositions in humans and rodents.

This dysbiosis causes increased levels of pro-inflammatory bacteria and decreased levels of anti-inflammatory bacteria and an overall reduction in gut health. Without the microbiota balance needed for a healthy gut, the intestinal barrier is compromised, causing a ‘leaky gut’, which leads to pro-inflammatory cytokine production and escape and a worsening hangover.

Whilst there are many chemical responses firing throughout the body during a hangover, there might be a more simple explanation for them: disrupting your daily routine. The early hours of partying when your brain should be dreaming of further reading and seminars might be the key to your next-day headache.

The disruption of circadian rhythm, the body’s 24 hour body clock, could contribute to hangover symptoms and a restored circadian rhythm has been found to be imperative in hangover recovery in rodents. A hangover induces a sort of ‘jet-lag’ effect as the nightly sleep, temperature and growth hormone release pattern is disrupted.

How is it, then, that there’s always one who claims to avoid hangovers. They wake up after the same heavy night as you, fresh as a daisy while you’re confined to a day in. And it seems that for 23% of people, being bright eyed and bushy tailed the day after a night out is a reality.

Hangover resistance is suggested to have graced around a fifth of the population with no apparent reason why. But looking further into this with a group of Dutch students claiming to never get hangovers revealed that they simply weren’t drinking enough to get one. And they’re not the only ones to provide data like this. A group of UK students surveyed revealed a similar case, where 65% of hangover negative students had a blood alcohol content of the same or less than 0.08%, the legal UK driving limit, which was therefore not enough to give hangover symptoms. Which begs the question – does hangover immunity actually exist?

What one study did reveal was that alcohol is metabolised at different rates in different people. The people who metabolised alcohol faster and had less in their urine had fewer hangover symptoms, suggesting your hangover immunity could be in your genes.

Image by Raj Stevenson via Flickr

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