How many times have you started your evening with an alcoholic drink, and ended it many drinks later only to regret your having drunk too much and waking up with a hangover. Unfortunately in today’s world “getting drunk is still synonymous with “having a good time but understanding alcohol’s harmful effects on your body may dissuade you from drinking excessively the next time you are out.
Alcohol causes your body to dehydrate, leading to a huge loss of water being expelled from your body, which as well as causing the familiar scorching dry mouth, also causes a loss of essential electrolytes needed for proper nerve, muscle and other cell functions, making you feel tired, nauseous and develop a headache.
Alcohol also messes up your blood sugar balance, making the pancreas produce huge amounts of insulin, which leads to a dramatic decrease in blood sugar levels, even when you have stopped drinking. Hence the severe hunger pangs and low energy levels which are further exacerbated when the alcohol depletes our glucose stores in the liver. The resulting hypoglycemia contributes to the fatigue, mood disturbances and weakness felt during a hangover. The upper abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting also experienced during a hangover result from alcohol increasing the secretions in the stomach, intestine and pancreas, which can also make these organs inflamed.
It also acts on the brain to suppress glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter (a chemical in the brain that stimulates brain electrical activity) and on cessation of drinking, the brain produces an overabundance of this neurotransmitter, that stops us from getting a proper nights sleep, further adding to our hangover symptoms of anxiety, restlessness and increased blood pressure. An excess of alcohol also causes temporary brain cell damage, leading to our brains swelling up and being compressed inside our skulls, and giving us the familiar pounding headache.
How you will react to a given amount of alcohol and your likelihood of developing a hangover depends on your metabolism (break down) of alcohol which is dependant on many factors such as: the percentage of fat in your body (the more fat the more concentrated the alcohol will be in your body water and the more you will feel its effects); your sex (women have more body water than men and less of the enzymes needed for metabolizing alcohol); your drinking habits (the more you drink, the more tolerant you become to alcohol); if you have eaten a fat-containing meal prior to drinking (fat triggers the release of a hormone from the stomach wall that delays the stomach from emptying, and eating prepares the liver to make the enzymes needed for alcohol metabolism); the type of drink you consume because of its content of congeners or additives (the paler the drink, the less the congener, thus vodka and gin, are less likely to produce a hangover than brandy and red wine) and its rate of metabolism (for example champagne which is bland passes straight to the intestine and is more rapidly absorbed than whiskey which stays for longer in the stomach); and finally, your mood as studies have shown that those who are depressed when drinking develop worse hangovers than those who are in a happy mood.
Although everyone’s metabolism of alcohol will vary, on average, a unit of alcohol is metabolized every hour. Clearly, drinking at a rate faster than your body can metabolize the alcohol will lead to an accumulation of alcohol and increase the resulting hangover. There are 1.5 units of alcohol in a glass of wine (125ml), a standard measure of spirits (35ml), and half a pint of beer.
If you still end up making the terrible mistake of drinking too much, there are some remedies that may alleviate your discomfort, although it is the passage of time that will ultimately rid your body of the poison of which you have ingested too much. Some of these remedies include eating eggs, as these contain cysteine which is needed in the liver to mop up the toxins from alcohol; drinking fresh juices, eating bananas and taking vitamins (especially vitamin B which becomes depleted with too much alcohol) to replenish the lost minerals and electrolytes; taking an anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen or aspirin prior to sleeping as too much alcohol increases prostaglandins (chemicals in our bodies involved in inflammation and pain) and these drugs inhibit these; and finally coffee taken the next morning has actually been found to reduce the toxic effects of alcohol.
Alcohol in excess can make you lose your mind and body (and sometimes your soul) but in moderation, it has benefits on all of these. Recommendations for daily alcohol intake are a maximum of 4 and 3 units (with no more than 21 and 14 units per week) for men and women respectively. Maintaining a healthy intake will allow you to reap its benefits and enjoy its pleasures.
May El Meleigyholds a Ph.D in Immunology (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), an MSc in Toxicology/Pathology (Royal Postgraduate Medical School, London) and a BSc in Pharmacology (University College London). May is a medical and health journalist, and is a regular contributor to the British Medical Journal, Lancet, and WHO bulletin. May also produces health programs for Egyptian Television.