Why do people get hangovers?

Experts don’t know what causes hangovers. A hangover might be caused by non alcohol compounds in drinks themselves, personality traits of the drinker, or even the way that we process alcohol itself. More on the physiology of drinking here.

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It might surprise you to know that scientific experts don’t know why people get hangovers. There are a few possible reasons (that we’ll review later), but it’s important to know that hangover prevention and treatment are in the early stages of our understanding. Even the length of a hangover is subject to multiple variables.  Here, we will review the common symptoms of hangovers, their possible causes and open up the discussion to you.

Signs and symptoms of a hangover

Typically, people with hangovers feel ill.

  • anxiety
  • decreased attention and concentration
  • decreased overall sleep
  • decreased REM sleep
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • increased pulse
  • increased slow-wave sleep
  • increased systolic blood pressure
  • irritability
  • muscle aches
  • nausea
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • stomach pain
  • sweating
  • thirst
  • tremor
  • vertigo
  • vomiting
  • weakness

No scientific explanation for hangovers

If you’re looking for a very precise cause for hangovers, you’re not going to find it … yet. This is because the hangover condition is not well understood scientifically. So, although we know many of the signs and symptoms of a hangover, we don’t know why some people get them and others don’t.

Doctors, researchers and scientists don’t understand what causes hangovers and actually know very little about the physiology of a hangover. In fact, they’re not even sure what causes hangover signs and symptoms. The current theory is that hangovers may be caused by any of the following three possibilities:

1. alcohol’s direct effects on the body
2. alcohol’s after effects on the body
3. a combination of both

Other possible causes of hangovers

Acetaldehyde – Acetaldehyde is a by-product of alcohol metabolism. Some experts theorize that if acetaldehyde builds up in the body, the toxic effects of this condition may actually mirror hangover symptoms. Some people are genetically unable to metabolize acetaldehyde quickly and experience acetaldehyde toxicity symptoms agter drinking alcohol.

Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance – Alcohol is a diuretic and increased urination.

Drug use – Experts theorize that smoking cigarettes, marijuana, taking cocaine or using other drug can contribute to the symptoms of a hangover.

Gastrointestinal problems – Alcohol can inflame the lining of the stomach, produce fatty liver and increase gastric acid, pancreatic secretions and intestinal secretions.

Genetics – A history of alcoholism in the family may be associated with a tendency for increased hangover symptoms.

Low blood sugar – When the body metabolizes or processes alcohol, the process can inhibit glucose production and result in hypoglycemia, which can add to hangover symptoms.

Methanol – Methanol is a compound present in some alcoholic beverages that is created during fermentation. Research has found that methanol can contribute to the effects of a hangover. The darker the alcohol, the more potential there is for a hangover. So, avoiding rum, red wine, brandy and whiskey may be helpful.

Psychological traits – Some evidence exists that increased hangover symptoms occur more often in people who display neuroticism, anger, and defensiveness. Negative life events and feelings of guilt about drinking also are associated with experiencing more hangovers. And greater hangover symptoms have been found in people who have a higher personality risk for the development of alcoholism.

Sleep and biological rhythm disturbances – Alcohol is a sedative, but when we sleep after we drink, we sleep less profoundly and shorter than normal.

Withdrawal – Hangovers may be a sign of physical dependence on alcohol. This means that the symptoms of the hangover may actually be the result of the need for alcohol in the body in order for the central nervous system to function. This reaction occurs in people who are continual and chronic drinkers.

Hangovers are the result of drinking

Researchers also don’t know how much a hangover affects a person’s thinking and mentally controlled motor functions, which have serious implications for public health (working during a hangover). But we do know that people get hangovers after drinking alcohol. Generally, the greater the amount and duration of alcohol consumption, the greater the hangover. If you’re looking to not get a hangover, avoid alcohol. And if you can’t avoid alcohol, you may want ask, “Am I a problem drinker?”.

Please feel free to leave you questions, comments and feedback below. We welcome all!

Reference sources: Alcohol Hangover Study from the NIAAA
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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