Hangover Chemistry: Good Read for Anyone Who Drinks

April 10th, 2011
by Andy Georgescu

Most college students that drink alcohol have experienced a hangover: it’s the brutal battle that’s waged in your brain and body following a night of copious drinking, which may last a couple morning hours to the entire next day.

Your head pounds, your body aches, and your breath smells like a blend of tear gas and hummus. What the shit is going on? If you think you have been drinking too much alcohol lately, perhaps you should consider checking into alcohol rehab centers for treatment.

First, a college guide to how alcohol works:

1. Ethanol, the alcohol that’s in drinks, is a poison. It’s the same thing Purell uses to keep your hands 99.99% bacteria-free. Like any other poison, your body has to work to first neutralize it and then get it out; it is mainly this process, among alcohol’s other effects, that causes you to have a hangover.

2. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes you piss much more water than you typically would (for geeks: ethanol inhibits vasopressin/antidiuretic hormone production in your pituitary gland, which makes your kidneys send water towards the three-foot wide target zone around your toilet instead of retaining it). So, you become dehydrated. You also lose a lot of the ions that keep things like your nervous system working properly, so with time, you get exhausted, weak, and, of course, have headaches. Obviously, this also adds to your hangover.

3. Beer before liquor, never been sicker: Bubbles in your drinks make your body absorb alcohol faster. Drinking a beer before vodka, for example, gets you drunk faster than drinking the beer last. The sudden increase in blood alcohol when you drink beer/Pepsi/Red Bull at the same time as liquor gives you bouts of dizziness, which may result in enjoyable fuck-I-need-to-vomit sensations throughout your night.

4. Your body neutralizes ethanol by first turning it into a chemical called acetaldehyde in your liver. This second substance is even more toxic than alcohol, but thankfully, it’s quickly turned into acetate and expelled (which gives your hangover piss that aromatic vinegar scent). But there’s a problem: your liver isn’t designed to be there for you when you drink like Mel Gibson. When you have more than a couple of drinks, your liver can’t get rid of acetaldehyde faster than it’s making it, so this badass toxin builds up in your bloodstream and stays with you as you sleep. This substance, not alcohol itself, is what causes most of the symptoms of the morning-after hangover.Contrary to popular belief–unless you’re Chuck Norris and wake up in the middle of the night to take some shots–you don’t wake up drunk on alcohol, unless you were near-death drunk the night prior. No, instead, you wake up poisoned with a night’s worth of the highly-toxic acetaldehyde floating through your bloodstream, and your body directs its efforts away from let’s be a normal human being today and towards get this shit out of me and fuck you, have a massive headache and vomit a few times.

5. Bad liquor is impure and contains more toxins. The handle of Admiral Nelson’s Fine Rum or ghetto tequila that you dumped into your pink-lemonade jungle juice has some sweet by-products from the bathtub fermentation process by which it was made that are also toxins, which piggyback your hangover and make it worse. If you wake up so hungover you’d pay a couple dollars to make it go away, you should’ve spent that money the night before on some nice vodka (which doesn’t have nearly as much of this crap inside).

Summary so far: alcohol makes you dehydrated and dizzy, and gives you a headache. Then, if you drink just enough, your body can’t get rid of all the acetaldehyde it’s making fast enough, and it builds up and fucks you up all night (i.e. horrible sleep) and the next day as your body fights to turn that shit into balsamic salad dressing and squirt it out. Also, don’t drink ghetto liquor from plastic bottles.

Now that we know what’s going on, let’s turn this shit around, fix up the hangover, and fight back like France didn’t. This is the no-nonsense to-do list to follow if you want to avoid waking up as Helen Keller the next morning:

1. Eat fries/burgers/pizza before drinking (not after): Drinking on a freshly-greased stomach slows the rate at which alcohol enters your bloodstream, which helps pace your liver through its upcoming epic battle to keep you alive and unpoisoned.

2. Pop dehydration in its ass: Drink water Like a BOSS all night. And not just a sip here and there. I mean a bottle to the face, several times throughout your night, and especially before you go to sleep. Have a bottle by your bedside to drink if you wake up in the middle of the night.

3. Pull the trigger before bed: Before you go to sleep, tickle those tonsils and get rid of all the Keystone you have sitting in your beer-swamp of a stomach. That way you’ll have less for your liver to deal with overnight, and it might sway a horrible hangover into one that’s more tolerable. After you finish backing up your sewage pipes, drink some water or a Gatorade/fruit shake before bed.

4. Take a multivitamin (that contains potassium) and/or eat potassium-rich foods like bananas before bed time. Or grab one of those overpriced fruit/vegetable shakes from your corner store, even a Gatorade bottle, and down it before bed. You get the point. “Omg, lolz, what are you gonna do with that banana??!” might pose an awkward situation, but you’ll thank yourself the next morning for eating it.

5. Eggs and Coke: The next morning, try to have some eggs and Coke (the black kind, not the white kind), even if your appetite is nonexistent. Bluntly, eggs have a lot of liver-fuel that will help destroy your leftover acetaldehyde, and NON-diet soft drinks like Coke and Mountain Dew have a lot of sugar (fructose, in particular), which also helps you recover. The bubbles in these drinks also help you keep what you ate down in your stomach (e.g. while orange juice also has a lot of fructose, I’d recommend staying away: the lack of carbonation makes it come back up like a yeast infection, and there’s nothing worse than vomiting cold OJ). The caffeine in Coke, on one hand, helps wake you up and helps a bit to quell your headaches, but is also a diuretic. You can combat the latter by sipping on a Gatorade.

6. DON’T drink more alcohol the next morning: This may be surprising, but drinking more of the stuff that made you hungover to begin with is a stupid way of making it go away. Hangovers aren’t symptoms of “alcohol withdrawl,” as frat-science tells us, but rather your body’s response to being poisoned. Save the poisoning for later that evening and let your liver catch its breath.

7. Experiment with a spoonful of Pepto Bismol in the morning to help you keep the food you eat in your stomach, and not back in your plate. It’s very important to eat if you want your hangover to fuck off, and if it means drinking that pink vomit-sauce, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

8. Take Ibuprofen/Acetaminophen: Yes, taking an Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Excedrin, whatever in the morning does help: it’s proven that these painkillers do help get rid of your hangover headache, so they’re definitely recommended. Take as many as it says on the bottle, before you sleep and again when you wake up. Many lab rats died to come up with those guidelines printed on the box, so read carefully and don’t swallow a handful of the pills thinking it’ll work better than taking just one or two.Photo Credit

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10 thoughts on “Hangover Chemistry: Good Read for Anyone Who Drinks

  1. You gotta watch out for those beer shits. Round one usually happens right after you wake up and round occurs around lunch time. Pack a big lip to catalyze the process.

  2. 1) It will help. Somewhat. How much it will help may vary, and will range from a placebo effect-induced miraculous recovery to no help whatsoever, and even a net negative (albeit unnoticeable) effect (see below).

  3. 2) You stress your liver further by taking painkillers after/during your alcohol consumption. This is because your liver now has to work to degrade the active ingredients in the painkillers in addition to the acetaldehyde that's cruising through your body. Taking painkillers to quell your hangovers once in a while isn't the most harmful thing, but doing this daily (or many times a week) makes your liver run a never-ending marathon. Which is paradoxical, because the marathon does end, typically with liver failure and painful, yellow-skinned death.

  4. 3) Taking oral tablets that contain aspirin or acetaminophen with no food in your stomach will likely lead to stomach bleeding. This is especially pronounced if you take them in the morning, at which point you likely haven't eaten in 8+ hours. Unless you want to dye your toilet bowl an appetizing red color, take them during, or after, your morning meal.

  5. Some college students drink. Yes they get drunk, and end up having a hangover. I agree that everyone should have a full meal before drinking alcohol to avoid sickness. Everyone body is different from one another. Therefore, sometimes it works sometime is does not. However, everyone must eat a meal before time.

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