Dr. Ian Mak, a family physician at The Health Centre of Maple, explains this condition and busts a few myths when it comes to hangover prevention.
What is a hangover?
“A hangover is a general sense of feeling unwell after a night of drinking,” explains Mak. “This could be due to a change in hormone levels, the metabolic products of alcohol in your body and dehydration.” A hangover occurs after all the alcohol has been metabolized from a person’s body (when blood alcohol levels are at zero) and lasts for only a few hours. Hangovers are actually quite common and the majority of people who drink have had at least one in their lifetime.
It’s true that people who drink frequently have a higher tolerance of alcohol, and a lesser chance of getting a hangover. “When you drink, alcohol is metabolized by specific enzymes in your body,” says Mak. “The more often you drink alcohol, the more enzymes are produced to break it down, allowing for more to be consumed as time passes.”
What causes a hangover?
According to Mak, “you only get a hangover when you drink past your threshold.” Studies have shown that individuals can handle 1.5 grams of alcohol per kilogram of their weight, over four to six hours. “If you drink more than this, there is a high likelihood you will experience a hangover the next day,” says Mak.
There are a few theories as to what chemically causes hangover symptoms. These range from the changing of hormone levels to the accumulation of specific organic chemical compounds (like acetaldehyde). Though there is no single generally well-accepted theory, “the level fluctuation of the antidiuretic hormone is most commonly found to be associated with the symptoms of a hangover,” states Mak.
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The antidiuretic hormone is one that helps your body retain water. “You’ll notice an increased urination frequency when you drink because alcohol inhibits the production of this hormone,” explains Mak. Therefore, once alcohol is consumed, your body expels more water than you are taking in, leading you to become easily dehydrated.
Post-drinking, when your blood alcohol level has returned to zero (usually the following morning), your body deals with this fluid loss by retaining as much water as possible. “A dry mouth is common following a night of drinking as the body is usually very dehydrated,” Mak says. “Dehydration also causes headaches – the most well-known symptom of hangovers.”
“Acetaldehyde is a metabolic product of alcohol that is very toxic to the body – especially the liver,” says Mak. In theory, if a moderate amount of alcohol is consumed, your liver is capable of breaking down this substance in time to keep the toxins from harming your body. If you drink excessively in a short amount of time, however, deconstructing the acetaldehyde becomes more difficult and leads to a build-up of toxins.
Mak explains that this toxicity is often theorized to be the cause of the nausea, vomiting and headaches that occur when experiencing a hangover.
"Hangover symptoms actually vary between individuals," says Dr. Ian Mak, a family physician at The Health Centre of Maple. "The most commonly known symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, dehydration and a general feeling of being unwell."
3 easy tips for hangover prevention
Besides abstaining from alcohol – the obvious way to prevent a hangover – there are other ways to indulge without feeling sick in the morning. Here are Mak's top three ways to ward off a hangover:
1. Eat greasy food
"When it comes to avoiding a hangover, having any food in your stomach before drinking is beneficial," says Mak. As greasy and fatty foods line your stomach, eating them before drinking should theoretically slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. "This would technically also allow the body more time to break down the acetaldehyde build-up, leaving fewer toxins in your body at the end of the night," says Mak.
2. Drink water
"Drinking water while consuming alcohol helps with rehydration and slows down the drinking pace," says Mak. "Considering the amount of water people lose while drinking, regaining some of that water throughout this period of alcohol consumption will help lessen the effects of dehydration the following morning."
3. Give yourself time
"A hangover only occurs when you drink beyond your threshold," says Mak. So, if you don't consume an excessive amount of alcohol within a short period of time, you're much less likely to experience any of the hangover symptoms. Pacing yourself is key.
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