While the cast of the movie The Hangover gets themselves into hilarious predicaments the day after a night of excessive drinking in Las Vegas, the reality of an actual hangover is a lot less humorous.

A hangover is one of the many unpleasant after effects of excessive alcohol consumption and can leave a person with a pounding headache, dry mouth, nausea, irritable mood and impaired concentration.

What causes a hangover?

There are several phenomenons responsible for the hangover. One of the main reasons is dehydration. When alcohol is absorbed into the blood after ingestion, it produces an effect on the pituitary gland in the brain, stopping it from synthesizing the chemical vasopressin. Vasopressin is a chemical required by the kidneys to reabsorb water into the body. Without vasopressin, water is expelled from the body in the form of urine. This is why bathroom trips are common when a person is consuming alcohol.

Did You Know?
On average, for each volume of alcoholic beverage ingested, four times that amount of water will be lost through urination.

This overall loss of water forces the body to move remaining water to its vital organs. As a result, a dry mouth can occur. The brain loses water as well, causing it and its cells to shrink. This puts stress on the membranes that connect the brain to the skull. This tension results in headache.

Another result of frequent urination is the loss of salts like sodium and potassium. These salts are essential for the function of nerves and muscles. Low sodium and potassium levels end up producing nausea and fatigue.

Did You Know?
Among the other negative consequences of alcohol intoxication are impaired judgment, upset stomach, impaired balance, sleep difficulties and even depression.

But this is not the end of the story. When alcohol is broken down in the liver, an intermediate toxic product is formed. This toxic product, called acetaldehyde, can build up in the body if large amounts of alcohol are ingested. Acetaldehyde is more toxic than alcohol itself and can also produce headaches and nausea.

The best cure for a hangover?

For those of legal age, the best bet would be to avoid a hangover in the first place by limiting the amount of alcohol consumed at one time. Otherwise, drinking water to replenish the body’s water helps to treat the symptoms of dehydration. Also, eating foods high in potassium, like bananas, can help to correct ionic imbalances. In general, foods high in vitamins are helpful in replacing vitamins lost from urination and alcohol detoxification. Additionally, eating foods that have a high amount of the amino acid cysteine, like eggs, helps to break down acetaldehyde.

Learn more!

How hangovers work?

What is the science behind a hangover?

More science of hangovers

Article first published December 20, 2010.

Tony Lim

I am a graduate student pursuing a PhD in the neuroscience program at McGill University. In addition to neuroscience, my scientific interest and background lies in the field of pharmacology. When not at the lab, I enjoy playing volleyball, badminton, snowboarding and playing electric guitar with the band in my spare time.

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