March 9, 2008

The anatomy of a hangover

It’s no secret that intoxication has a number of immediate negative consequences. Among other things, it impairs judgement, it impairs the ability to do most things and it can bring on a depressed mood. But even after a drinker has sobered up, alcohol can still be causing the body trouble. More than 75 percent of alcohol consumers have experienced a hangover at least once; 15 percent have one at least every month; and 25 percent of college students feel symptoms weekly.

What is a Hangover?

The formal name for a hangover is veisalgia, from the Norwegian word for "uneasiness following debauchery" (kveis) and the Greek word for "pain" (algia) — an appropriate title considering the uncomfortable symptoms experienced by the average drinker. The common hangover includes some or all of the following:

  • Headache
  • Poor sense of overall well-being
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Trembling
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Dehydration(dry mouth, extreme thirst, dry eyes)
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weakness

The most common symptoms are headache, fatigue and dehydration, and the least common is trembling. The severity and number of symptoms varies from person to person; however, it is generally true that the more alcohol a drinker consumes, the worse the hangover will be.

It usually takes five to seven cocktails over the course of four to six hours to cause a hangover for a light-to-moderate drinker (a man who drinks up to three alcoholic beverages a day or a woman who drinks up to one). It may take more alcohol for heavier drinkers because of increased tolerance. Other than the number of drinks consumed, hangovers can be made worse by:

  • drinking on an empty stomach
  • lack of sleep
  • increased physical activity while drinking (dancing, for example)
  • dehydration before drinking
  • poor health

The reason for some symptoms isn’t fully understood, but research has led scientists to have a pretty good understanding of the primary causes of a hangover. In the next few days, we’ll find out what’s going on in the body to cause these problems.

The Biology of a Hangover: Vasopressin Inhibition

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