What is a hangover? The biological effects of your night out

Ever wondered why over-indulging in alcohol has to be so consequently painful the next morning? Most studies agree that hangovers are a result of a disruption to the balance of chemicals in your brain. So, when ethanol is absorbed into your bloodstream, what exactly does it change? And how will this make you feel..

Alcohol is a diuretic that dehydrates your body by suppressing the antidiuretic hormone vasopressin. The loss of water results in a drop in the volume of blood, temporarily upsetting your brain as it receives a lower blood and oxygen flow. To correct this, your brain dilates blood vessels, which can cause them to swell. It's likely that this accounts for some hangover symptoms, primarily that unfortunate headache.

Alcohol also irritates your stomach and intestine, causing inflammation to the stomach lining.[1] It also makes you produce more gastric acid, alongside increasing the levels of pancreatic and intestinal secretions. All of this can result in nausea and cause you to be sick.

One belief is that hangovers are a consequence of the build-up of excess acetaldehyde, a by-product of the processes that metabolise ethanol. When we drink a lot, acetaldehyde rises to toxic levels and affects other active chemicals in your body. Some side effects, with which you may be familiar, are nausea, flushing, and an abnormal heartbeat.

When our liver tries to break down alcohol, the resulting chemical reaction can damage its cells. This damage can lead to inflammation and scarring as the liver tries to repair itself. If this happens, you may feel a vague discomfort in your abdomen because your liver is swollen. You might also feel sick and lose your appetite.

Thankfully, Milk thistle may be able to help. It is a traditional herbal medicinal product used to relieve symptoms associated with occasional over indulgence in food and drink.

[1] Swift R., Davidson D., 'Alcohol Hangover Mechanisms and Mediators,’ Alcohol Health & Research World, p.56.

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