Hangover Biology 101
Pesky toxins are the culprits responsible for you feeling like a regurgitated hairball following an innocent night of revelry. So, is it possible to avoid them? It would be a great strategy, but the fact is, the exact origin of the toxins is unknown. They may be present in the alcoholic beverage itself, or get created as a metabolic by-product by the body in some fashion, or some combination of the two.
In addition to toxins, dehydration also contributes to the symptoms and physiological events you experience with a hangover. Your kidneys and liver require water to dilute and process the toxins. When you drink alcohol, your body actually requires more water than usual in order to perform this function efficiently. If water and fluids are not readily available to aid in this detoxification process, the body will redistribute what water is available. All parts of the body are impacted by this redistribution of fluid….even the brain. And you wonder why your head hurts!!
Alcohol acts as a diuretic, which means that it increases the release of urine from the body. As you are drinking alcoholic beverages, your body is actually losing fluids. By losing more fluids than usual, you are also losing important vitamins and nutrients. Do we need to mention the additional fluid and nutrient loss that occurs if you also experience vomiting? We didn’t think so.
The enzyme ‘alcohol dehydrogenase’ (ADH) is responsible for breaking down the alcohol in the liver. The tolerance that habitual drinkers build to alcohol is due to increased levels of ADH. Some research suggests that men tend to have more of this enzyme than women, and as a result can usually drink more than women of equal weight. For some reason, peoples of Asian decent reportedly produce less of the enzyme as well. (All in all, a rather dubious distinction for the Caucasian male.)
The toxins involved in a hangover:
Ethanol (ethyl alcohol)
Produced naturally during fermentation (the making of alcohol).
By-products of metabolism
When the liver breaks down the alcohol, enzymes produce a by-product called acetaldehyde. This highly toxic substance enters the system and can make you feel extremely ill.
These are by-products of the alcohol fermentation and distillation process and are present in the drink itself. The level of congeners help explain why certain drinks give you a worse hangover than others. Visit our congeners page to learn more.
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