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When you drink alcohol, it affects various systems throughout your body. As a result, you may develop a hangover the following day after drinking heavily. In short, a hangover is the body’s reaction to alcohol. 

Hangovers cause a variety of different physical and emotional symptoms. Their severity often correlates with the amount of alcohol consumed the night before.

In many cases, the side effects of a hangover are more of an inconvenience. Although, the effects of hangovers can be serious and cause serious impairment.

Long after alcohol leaves your system, your body continues to suffer and recover from an alcohol hangover.

What Causes a Hangover? (Risk Factors)

The short answer is alcohol consumption. However, it isn’t as simple as that. Alcohol affects everyone differently.

One person may experience a hangover after a single drink. Others, on the other hand, can drink in excess and wake up the next morning without a hangover.

There are many factors that make a person more susceptible to hangovers, including:

  • Drinking on an empty stomach – When your stomach is empty, it releases alcohol into the bloodstream at a faster rate. This increases the debilitating effects on the body and increases your risk of a hangover.
  • Smoking cigarettes – Smoking cigarettes while drinking alcohol increases your risk of a hangover and can intensify symptoms. Studies show that cigarette smoke contains the chemical acetaldehyde. This is the same chemical your liver releases as it processes alcohol and is linked to hangover symptoms.
  • Not enough sleep – Poor sleep habits before drinking, or the poor quality of sleep that occurs after drinking, can contribute to increased hangover symptoms.
  • A family history of alcoholism – Research shows that alcoholism has some genetic components. Gene variants can also affect how your body metabolizes alcohol and increases your risk of hangovers.
  • Choosing to drink darker alcoholic beverages – Dark alcoholic beverages contain higher concentrations of congeners. While congeners contribute to the dark color, taste, and odor of these beverages, they also interfere with cell function and contribute more to your hangover risk.

Sulfites can make hangover symptoms worse. The compound is commonly added to wine as a preservative. People with sulfite sensitivities may experience a headache after drinking wine.

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Symptoms of a Hangover

Hangovers are the result of the body’s attempt to recover from alcohol intoxication.

Heavy drinking leads to frequent urination (diuresis), which commonly results in thirstiness, dizziness, dry mouth, and an electrolyte imbalance.

After you drink heavily, you may also develop stomach pain, a sore throat, or a combination of other hangover symptoms:

Dehydration

Alcohol suppresses the release of vasopressin. This hormone helps regulate your kidneys and the release of urine. When you drink alcohol, your kidneys release more urine than normal.

This contributes to dehydration and hangover symptoms such as increased thirst, dry mouth, fatigue, and headaches.

Inflammation  

Alcohol increases the level of inflammation throughout your body. This inflammation can affect organs in the body, such as the liver and brain.

Regular excessive alcohol use and the resulting inflammation can cause damage to these organs. In terms of hangovers, inflammation throughout the body often contributes to the pain and general malaise you experience.

Stomach Irritation

Alcohol is caustic and irritates the lining of the stomach and increases the release of acid. This contributes to the upset stomach, nausea, and vomiting associated with hangovers.

Blood Sugar Regulation

Consuming alcohol affects the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, causing levels to fall to dangerously low levels. This can cause “the shakes,” fatigue, weakness, and, in extreme cases, seizures.

Sleep Disruption

After a night of drinking, you may feel ready to jump into bed and will likely fall asleep quickly. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you will get the rest you need.

Alcohol leads to disrupted and fragmented sleep, leaving you feeling unrested and fatigued. This can also contribute to memory loss, confusion, and trouble thinking.

Exposure to Acetaldehyde

When your liver processes alcohol, it releases the chemical acetaldehyde. This toxic by-product of alcohol contributes to increased inflammation in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, liver, pancreas, and other areas of the body.

Alcohol Withdrawal

When you consume alcoholic drinks, the chemical production in your brain changes. While alcohol makes you feel more relaxed, your brain produces more stimulating compounds to create a balance.

When you stop drinking, those stimulating compounds take over while your body works to balance with calming compounds. 

Until that happens, you may experience restlessness and anxiety. While this is a common symptom that occurs when alcoholics go through withdrawals, similar mini-withdrawal symptoms can occur with a hangover.

The lack of energy, poor memory, lack of coordination, and inability to concentrate after a night of drinking occurs because alcohol causes damage to the brain.

When Does a Hangover Peak?

Hangover symptoms peak when your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) returns to about zero.

How Long Does a Hangover Last?

How long a hangover lasts depends on how much alcohol you drink. The symptoms can last for 24 hours or longer.

How Do Hangovers Negatively Impact Your Brain?

When you go out drinking, you know that alcohol is going to affect your brain, how you think, and your reaction times. This is the reason why drinking and driving is illegal.

However, alcohol continues to affect your brain and your cognitive abilities are still lacking even after your alcohol levels drop. In addition, the effects of alcohol on the brain can linger well after it leaves the bloodstream. 

Natural Remedies for a Hangover

The only way to avoid a hangover is to not drink alcohol at all or keep intake to a minimum. Time is the only cure for a hangover.

There are ways to minimize the effects of a hangover. Although the following tips can help reduce symptoms, you cannot speed up the process:

  1. Take a cold shower
  2. Drink coffee
  3. Get some sleep
  4. Eat healthy food
  5. Keep drinking water
  6. Exercise
  7. Carbon or charcoal capsules

When a Hangover Requires Medical Attention

Alcohol abuse and heavy drinking can take a toll on the body. Hangover side effects can be debilitating. Although, if they continue to worsen or become severe, a simple hangover may not be your problem.

Alcohol poisoning occurs when you ingest too much alcohol. While initial symptoms can be similar to those of a hangover, new symptoms will develop.

Symptoms can include: 

  • Confusion
  • Intense vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Pale or blue-toned skin
  • A drop in body temperature
  • Loss of consciousness 
  • Difficulty remaining conscious

If you experience any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical help as this can be a life-threatening emergency. A person who is unconscious or can’t be awakened is at risk of death.

Symptoms of Alcohol Misuse & Addiction

Hangovers are common, even among people who don't have alcohol misuse problems. However, if you experience frequent hangovers, it could be a sign that an addiction is forming.

According to The DSM-5, common symptoms of alcoholism (alcohol use disorder) include:

  • Drinking more or for longer than was intended
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop alcohol use
  • Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from alcohol consumption
  • Cravings for alcohol
  • Failure to fulfill responsibilities at work, school, or home due to drinking alcohol
  • Continuing to drink despite having social problems caused by the effects of alcohol
  • Important social, work, or recreational activities are stopped or reduced because of alcohol use
  • Drinking in physically dangerous situations
  • Continuing to drink even though it is known to have negative effects on your health
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol
  • Having withdrawal symptoms after stopping alcohol use

Treatment Options for Alcohol Misuse & Addiction

There are many treatment options available for alcohol abuse and addiction, including:

  • Inpatient treatmentInpatient treatment takes place at a licensed residential treatment center. These programs provide 24/7 comprehensive, structured care.
  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs) Partial hospitalization programs (PHP) are sometimes referred to as intensive outpatient programs (IOP). Compared to inpatient programs, partial hospitalization programs provide similar services.
  • Outpatient treatment Outpatient treatment is less intensive than inpatient or partial hospitalization programs. These programs organize your treatment session based on your schedule. The goal of outpatient treatment is to provide therapy, education, and support in a flexible environment.
  • Medication-assisted therapy (MAT) Sometimes, medications may be used in alcohol addiction treatment. Some medicines can help reduce the negative side effects of detoxification and withdrawal. Others can help you reduce cravings and normalize body functions.
  • Support groups Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery are open to anyone with a substance abuse problem. They are peer-led organizations dedicated to helping each other remain sober. They can be the first step towards recovery or part of a long-term aftercare plan.

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Resources

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Bates, Claire. “Smoking Cigarettes DOES Make Your Hangover Worse.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 5 Dec. 2012, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2243322/Smoking-cigarettes-DOES-make-hangover-worse.html.

Felman, Adam. “Hangovers: Treatments and Causes.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 14 Dec. 2017, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/5089.php#cure.

Gunn, Craig, et al. “A Systematic Review of the next‐Day Effects of Heavy Alcohol Consumption on Cognitive Performance.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 30 Aug. 2018, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/add.14404.

“Hangovers.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 16 Dec. 2017, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hangovers/symptoms-causes/syc-20373012.

“Hangovers.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 23 Oct. 2019, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/hangovers.

“How a Hangover Affects Your Brain the Next Day.” LiveScience, Purch, https://www.livescience.com/63447-alcohol-hangover-cognition.html.

Wang, H Joe, et al. “Alcohol, Inflammation, and Gut-Liver-Brain Interactions in Tissue Damage and Disease Development.” World Journal of Gastroenterology, Baishideng, 21 Mar. 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2842521/.

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