There’s nothing like learning firsthand about the metabolic process of ethanol absorption to ruin a night out.
In other words: hangovers SUCK.
Following up on my last column about the delights of whiskey, I realized that the natural follow-up would be a column on hangovers. My age (27), location (large city) and sociability (fluctuating between cranky hermit and dancing queen) means I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do some personal research into the not-so-pleasant side effects of boozing my way through a weekend. And while I’d like to say I’ve learned how to hold my liquor in the six and a half years I’ve been legally allowed in bars, the truth is I’m a prisoner to my artistic temperament. In other words: I’m prone to the idiotic bouts of binging. (Imagine Dylan Thomas at the VFW bar on karaoke night. That was my Friday, minus the pneumonia and subsequent death.)
It turns out that what we call a “hangover” is actually a number of biochemical processes, all working together to put you in a world of pain. Responsible for the headaches and cotton mouth, the one most people know about is dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic—hence, frequent visits to bar bathrooms by those imbibing. The diuretic effect can also deplete the body of electrolytes that can result in lethargy and irritability.
Meanwhile, alcohol also has a disruptive effect on glutamine production. Glutamine is one of the body’s natural stimulants. Alcohol is a depressant and inhibits its production while you’re drunk. Unfortunately, after you hit your mattress, hopefully after drinking some water and taking an aspirin, glutamine production kicks back up. So while you may be dead to the world, your body is unable to actually drop down into the level of rest it needs. Sleep deprivation impacts cognitive performance: It makes you feel groggy, stupid and cranky.
Here’s what happens when you down a shot of tequila or whatever your choice of poison is: When you swallow it, the alcohol travels through your gut to your lower intestine. Along the way, it irritates the lining of your stomach and stimulates the secretion of hydrochloric acid, giving rise to stomach upset the morning after, along with what my friends and I like to oh-so-delicately call “whiskey shits.”
From your lower intestines, alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream and then carried to your liver. There, it’s exposed to enzymes that break it down in a process that I, personally, can’t really explain, having slept through most of my high school chemistry classes. (My geek-hood didn’t really start until after I left formal education. Go figure.)
Part of this breakdown process leaves us with some really nasty byproducts, though, such as acetaldehyde.
Hangovers: A Crappy Haiku
My liver’s sweating
Acetaldehyde, which is
nerd-speak for “pain juice”
Acetaldehyde is a neurotoxin and a pretty nasty one too; by some estimates, it’s 10-30 times more toxic than alcohol itself. Generally, the body is able to break it down into acetate and water before it can wreak too much havoc, but if your body is overwhelmed by that deluge of booze you poured down your throat, acetaldehyde will kick your ass. It’s responsible for the worst hangover symptoms, including nausea, diarrhea, headaches and vomiting. Over time, acetaldehyde can mess with neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, which helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. Low dopamine levels can be a contributing factor to addiction, giving people an extra nudge towards (you guessed it!) alcoholism.
So, now that you know all of that, are you going to strop drinking? No? Yeah, me neither, despite the fact that I feel like I owe an apology to most of my internal organs. (Sorry, guys!) But hey, luckily, some fellow geeks at Asap Science have worked up a great hangover cure!
Science: curing all the ills it sort of brought about in the first place! Sort of, anyway.