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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 severe 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 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.
- 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.
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.
Other Substances That Contribute to Hangover Symptoms
Alcohol is the main cause of a hangover. However, certain substances can further increase your risk for hangovers or make it worse. These include:
- 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. Acetaldehyde is linked to hangover symptoms.
- Drinker darker alcoholic beverages – Dark alcoholic drinks such as whiskey contain higher concentrations of congeners than lighter colored beverages like beer. While congeners contribute to the dark color, taste, and aroma of these beverages, they also interfere with cell function and can make your hangover worse.
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Symptoms of a Hangover
Drinking alcoholic beverages causes your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to rise. This usually means a BAC of 0.11% or higher for excessive drinkers, which is beyond the intoxication level of 0.08%.
When these levels drop significantly or are nearing zero, hangover symptoms will start to show.
The symptoms of a hangover can vary for each person, depending on the type of drink and how much they drank. For example, drinking clear liquors such as vodka and gin is less likely to result in alcohol hangover.
However, you can expect frequent and stronger hangovers if you consume dark alcoholic drinks such as whiskey, brandy, and tequila.
Here are the most common hangover symptoms:
- Excessive thirst
- Dry mouth
- Muscle aches
- Stomach pain
- Poor sleep
- Sensitivity to light and sound
What Causes Hangover Symptoms?
An alcohol hangover is a consequence of drinking too many alcoholic beverages in a short period. Excessive drinking affects the body’s functions and causes hangovers.
The effects of alcohol include:
Alcohol prevents the release of vasopressin – a hormone that regulates kidney function and retains fluids in the body. Drinking alcohol causes the kidneys to release more fluids than they should, resulting in increased urination (diuresis) and an excessive loss of fluids.
Dehydration causes hangover symptoms such as thirst, dry mouth, fatigue, and headaches.
Alcohol causes an inflammatory reaction in the body and affects organs such as the liver and brain. Regular excessive alcohol use and the resulting inflammation causes damage to these organs. In terms of hangovers, the inflammation contributes to muscle pain and general malaise.
Alcohol is acidic and irritates the stomach lining, causing it to produce more gastric acids. This contributes to stomach upset, nausea, and vomiting associated with hangovers.
Blood Sugar Regulation
One of the effects of alcohol is the way it metabolizes blood sugar. The body needs sugar to function, and alcohol causes its levels to fall. This can cause shaking, fatigue, weakness, and seizures in extreme cases.
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. It leaves you feeling fatigued and without rest, which is a common hangover symptom. The lack of quality sleep may 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.
When you consume alcoholic drinks, the chemical production in your brain changes. It triggers the release of dopamine, a well-known happy hormone.
While dopamine can make you feel more relaxed, it also gets your brain “hooked” to the feeling. When you stop drinking, the brain will seek the euphoric and relaxing effects of alcohol.
Unless you consume alcoholic drinks, you may experience restlessness and anxiety. While these are common symptoms that occur when alcoholics undergo withdrawal, similar mini-withdrawal symptoms can occur with an alcohol 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.
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When Does a Hangover Peak?
Hangover symptoms peak when your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) returns to about zero. This is usually around 12 hours after your last drink.
How Long Does a Hangover Last?
How long a hangover lasts depends on how much alcohol you drink and whether or not you take hangover cures. Hangover symptoms can last for up to 72 hours. However, most hangovers are shorter, lasting anywhere between 12 and 24 hours.
How Do Hangovers Negatively Impact Your Brain?
When you drink, alcohol affects your thinking and reaction times. These are short-term effects of alcohol and the reason why drinking and driving are illegal.
Alcohol continues to affect your brain and cognitive abilities when your blood alcohol levels drop. Moreover, the effects of alcohol will linger and become worse well after it leaves the bloodstream. This is especially true for people with alcohol use disorder.
When a Hangover Requires Medical Attention
In severe cases of alcohol misuse, a hangover may require medical attention. This could be a visit to a doctor or a medical emergency.
When to See a Doctor
Hangover symptoms go away once your body recovers. However, you may need to visit a doctor if you are:
- Worried about your unhealthy drinking
- Experiencing severe alcohol withdrawal
- Having frequent hangovers
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.
Withdrawal and frequent hangovers are signs of an alcohol use disorder. They can affect your relationship, career, and finances – reducing your overall quality of life. Alcohol use disorders such as alcohol abuse, dependence, and alcohol addiction require treatment.
When It's an Emergency
Alcohol poisoning occurs when you ingest too much alcohol on a single occasion. This can happen after exceeding 6 drinks and reaching a blood alcohol level of 0.31% or higher.
The symptoms of alcohol poisoning are:
- Intense vomiting
- 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 doesn’t respond or wake up to stimuli is at risk of death.
Natural Remedies for a Hangover
There are only two ways you can avoid a hangover. It’s either you don’t drink at all or you limit your alcohol intake to a minimum. If you already have a hangover, you have to wait for the symptoms to subside.
Until then, you can try to cure a hangover to reduce its effects. Hangover cures reduce the symptoms of a hangover and speed up your recovery.
To cure a hangover, you can do the following after a night of drinking:
- Take a cold shower
- Drink coffee
- Get some sleep
- Eat healthy food
- Keep drinking water
- Carbon or charcoal supplements
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 or 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's 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 treatment — Inpatient 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.