What Exactly Is A Hangover?

As the festive season approaches our thoughts turn to the inevitable parties and over indulgence that is associated with the Christmas season. Alcohol plays a big part in any party but while you are enjoying yourself what is it actually doing to your body and how does it cause a hangover?

The symptoms of a hangover are headache, nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, lethargy, dysphoria, diarrhoea and thirst.

Alcoholic beverages contain ethanol. It causes a dehydrating effect by increasing urine production. The increased removal of water from the body causes headaches, dry mouth, and lethargy. It also causes a reduction of fluid the brain and is the cause of headache associated with a hangover.

By drinking water before, during and after consumption of alcohol some of the lost fluid can be replaced which may reduce the headache symptoms. Alcohol's effect on the stomach lining can account for nausea.

Ethanol is broken down by liver enzymes. Ethanol is first converted to acetaldehyde, and then from acetaldehyde to acetic acid. Acetaldehyde (ethanol) is between 10 and 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself.

The breakdown of alcohol also interferes with the chemical reaction that produce the energy needed to sustain life. The body is forced to use an alternative pathway which is less efficient and reduces the ability of the liver to control the release of glucose into the blood. So the liver is unable to compensate for a drop in blood glucose.

Since glucose is the primary energy source of the brain, this lack of glucose (hypoglycemia) contributes to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, mood disturbances, and increased attention and concentration.

The by-products of alcoholic fermentation, known as congeners, are thought to be responsible for hangover symptoms. They are present in higher concentrations in dark colored alcoholic beverages such as red wine but are less concentrated in color alcoholic beverages such as vodka.

Alcohol affects the brain by inhibiting glutamine which is one of the body's natural stimulants. When the drinker stops drinking, the body tries to make up for lost time by producing more glutamine than it needs. This stimulates the brain which disturbs sleep. Severe glutamine rebound during a hangover may also be responsible for tremors, anxiety, restlessness and increased blood pressure.

Alcohol is removed from the bloodstream by either metabolism (liver enzymes), excretion (via the urine), or evaporation (in breath). It takes approximately one hour to metabolise one unit of alcohol BUT only if you stop drinking. If you continue to drink then there is an accumulative effect and it takes much longer to metabolise the alcohol.

The legal limit for driving with alcohol in the blood for US and UK is 0.08%. That means 0.08% of a person's blood, by volume, is alcohol. At 0.06 to 0.09% the feelings become blunted, reasoning, depth perception, peripheral vision, and glare recovery are impaired.

The safest way to avoid drink driving is not to drink at all if you know you have to drive. So stay safe this coming Christmas and don't do anything you may live to regret.

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