You hear the argument all the time, though everyone has their own version. Some people swear wine makes for the worst hangovers, some say tequila. Others have tricks like adding in that cup of water in between, eating plentifully, or keeping to clear alcohols and clear mixers. And some stay away from sugar as much as possible. While some of these points have a certain amount of value, the one main reality often misunderstood, is that all types of alcohol cause the same general hangover. Sorry if you thought the answer was different, read on to understand why.
What’s a hangover?
We usually associate the word ‘hangover’ with alcohol use, though the reality is that it applies to any substance (or for that matter, experience), where a person feels sick or low afterwards. With alcohol it can be a headache, tiredness, a feeling of malaise, depression, body aches, upset stomach, and just generally feeling sick. Though some of us can jump out of bed just fine after a night of drinking, others are burdened by this not-so-great feeling.
The reality is that it can apply to any drug that leaves you lower, after you get high. Think of how people talk of MDMA, and often needing several days to feel right again. This is also a kind of hangover experience. This isn’t to say all drugs cause one, but several can, and this itself can be specific to a person. Some people have this issue with psychedelics in general, some don’t.
Now think about a big event in life, and all the planning and energy that can go into it. Maybe it’s the work of putting something together, or the sheer enjoyment of the experience. Like a wedding. Not only do they usually take months to plan with tons of related stress, but the day itself is highly emotional, and affecting of a person’s mindset. Now think of right after. Whether it’s just the tiredness of something being over, or the downer of it now being just a part of the past; this too is like a hangover, just not from a chemical.
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Since the term is mainly used to describe the post-alcohol experience, and because there’s so much confusion on this idea, the purpose of this article is to focus on an alcoholic hangover. And while so much of the population drinks and experiences this at some point, I’m often balled over by the sheer misunderstanding by most people of what’s going on. So I’m going to go over what a hangover actually is, and the real ways you can avoid them, or deal with them better. While this topic is still controversial, what I’m bringing up next has been repeatedly found, in different ways.
Before getting into the actual cause, I want to say that one of the biggest misconceptions (or at least partial misconceptions) is that dehydration is what produces those bad hangover feelings. Now, realistically, if you’ve ever experienced dehydration from being out in the sun, or exercising without drinking enough, you might not feel great, but you can easily separate it from how a hangover feels.
Logically we should automatically know this can’t be the real answer. Couple that with the fact that hangover symptoms tend to remain well after hydration for many people, and that answer falls short again. I do however say ‘partial misconception’ because being dehydrated can certainly make worse an already bad situation, especially in extreme circumstances like alcohol produces.
Let’s get specific – how does an alcohol hangover happen?
The real cause of a hangover? While like most of life there aren’t 100% definite answers, the main culprit seems to be the compound acetaldehyde. And also formaldehyde. Here’s the process. When we drink alcohol, the alcohol makes us feel great, because that’s what alcohol does. It increases dopamine levels. Euphoria, relaxation, loss of inhibitions, risk-taking, and all around fun-having. Alcohol sure feels good. That is, until it gets processed by your liver.
When alcohol (ethanol and compounds like methanol) hit your liver, they get partially oxidized by a liver enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. This turns them into acetaldehyde and formaldehyde respectively, though there’s far more of the former than the latter, and some alcohol might have very little of the latter.
The acetaldehyde is further broken down by different enzymes called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, while formaldehyde is broken down by formaldehyde dehydrogenase. How long it takes for this processing to happen, is essentially indicative of how long your hangover will last. And how your body personally responds to these compounds, helps determine how bad your symptoms are.
That’s because acetaldehyde and formaldehyde are poisons, and they both promote the inflammation and oxidative stress that are also blamed for causing hangovers. And especially when higher amounts of alcohol are consumed, the dehydrogenase enzymes cannot break these compounds down fast enough, making them accumulate in the body.
Some studies even show a positive correlation between acetaldehyde content in the blood, and severity of hangover symptoms. I should say however, some do not. But those that don’t tend to focus on inflammatory issues and oxidative stress….which are caused by these compounds, bringing us back around to them as the likely culprits. Some publications point more toward one compound or the other in terms of which actually causes more damage. Jury is out on that one.
The thing that gets in the way of the methanol aspect for me personally, is that vodka is known to have very little methanol. As a vodka drinker nearly exclusively, I can guarantee plenty of awesome hangovers after it; which for me makes it point more toward acetaldehyde as the reason. Though this wouldn’t rule out the ability of both to cause the symptoms.
As a further backing to acetaldehyde as the main culprit, the drug disulfiram is given to alcoholics to make them sicker, so as to associate the sickness with the drinking. What does disulfiram do? Blocks acetaldehyde dehydrogenase from breaking down the acetaldehyde, causing a buildup in the body, and sickness.
Another drug is also used to affect the metabolism of ethanol and methanol. The drug 4-methylpyrazole inhibits alcohol dehydrogenase, blocking the metabolization of both compounds so as to limit their poisonous metabolites. This helps the body process them slower, with less issues of poisoning from the metabolites. It must be taken correctly however, as it allows the ethanol to build up, which can cause its own problems if a person drinks too much.
But there are other factors…
One, of course, is dehydration, in that it certainly won’t help the situation. And the other is sugar. People argue all the time about whether sugar does or doesn’t affect hangovers. The reality is that sugar is an inflammatory agent, which also causes oxidative stress, much like the poisons that alcohol becomes. Adding yet another agent like this can logically increase the effects. If you’re going to drink a lot in a night (maybe 4-10 drinks+), and all your drinks are mixed (lets say) with coke, that’s a huge amount of sugar. Is it that weird to think it could have a cumulative effect with the alcohol?
This doesn’t mean it causes a hangover. Some research doesn’t touch on the inflammation aspect. Some speak of the loss of b vitamins, and still others talk about a regular sugar spike. Alcohol does tend to mess with blood sugars, actually making a person excrete more in their urine and bringing on hypoglycemia; or conversely, inhibiting insulin production, which leads to the opposite. How much of a role the sugar you ingest during drinking, plays, is questionable; aside from understanding that at a time when the body is dealing with a lot of inflammation and oxidative stress, sugar just adds to this.
Truth is, my title is a little off. Different kinds of alcohol can have different amounts of compounds like methanol, due to things like impurities. Cheaper alcohols are also more likely to be less refined, and have more impurities. And some have loads more sugar than others. What I mean by the title is that, any alcohol you drink, will still go through this process, so the amount you drink, is the biggest determining factor in a hangover. Not the type of alcohol.
And of course, your own health. Just because one person is capable of drinking a certain amount without issues, doesn’t mean another person can get away with the same thing. If your body is less strong, the effects of the poisons might seem more detrimental than to a stronger-bodied person.
Alcohol Hangover – Conclusion
What’s your best bet for not getting an alcohol hangover? Don’t drink too much. That’s the main thing. And apart from that, keep yourself hydrated to stave off extra bad feelings, and know yourself and how sugar affects you; to know if its worth staying away from. Last, try to drink quality alcohols that are more refined to have less toxins. But understand that no matter what alcohol you drink, you’ll be processing it into a poison, before you process it out of your system. And if you’re going to have an all-night rager, it really doesn’t matter what you’re drinking anymore.
Does this mean all alcohols also have the same effect on how a person experiences drunkenness? Well, the jury is out on that one, but you can read this article for some interesting insights on the topic.
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