What a Hangover Does to Your Body, According to Doctors
Birthdays, vacations… The celebrations may change, but the primary temptation remains the same—to booze it up—and so do the day-after consequences: The nausea, fatigue, headache, wooziness and general misery of a hangover. Eat This, Not That! Health asked the experts why over imbibing causes those familiar symptoms and what you can do to ease them—or prevent them altogether. Read on, and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.
"Alcohol turns off the process in your kidneys that signal your brain that you're thirsty," says Jordanna Quinn, DO, MS, with Kore Regenerative Medicine in Denver, Colorado. "So you end up urinating out all of your fluids, without the signal to your brain to drink more fluids and regulate the water/salt balance in your bloodstream. When this signal to your brain is turned off, you don't have enough fluid in your bloodstream, and thus you become dehydrated and experience symptoms of nausea, headache and fatigue."
The Rx: "Ways to combat the symptoms of hangover include rehydration with water and electrolytes, taking B vitamins, and perhaps taking medications to help alleviate symptoms of headache (ibuprofen and Tylenol) or nausea," says Quinn.
Your Liver Is Overtaxed
"The major issue with drinking alcohol to excess is that the alcohol goes to your liver before all other parts of the body," says Tarek Hassanein, MD, a hepatologist and director of Southern California Liver Centers. "The alcohol gets metabolized in the liver and breaks down into toxic compounds which are then distributed throughout the body. When these toxic compounds are high in the blood, we get these symptoms of a hangover."
The Rx: "Flushing the toxins out via urination is the easiest method," says Hassanein. "Gatorade, coconut water, water, and coffee are all great for this. Aerobic exercise of any kind will do wonders. Not only does the body get rid of the toxins, intense movement can help stimulate blood flow and move contents around in the organs effectively speeding up the hangover process."
Your Face Bloats
Does a night of heavy drinking seem to give you a puffy face the next morning? Your mirror isn't lying. "Alcohol dilates the blood vessels and leads to dehydration, causing the body to bloat," says Dr. Stephen Davis, DO, of Davis Cosmetic Surgery in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
The Rx: "Use a gentle exfoliating scrub to wake up the skin and get the blood moving," says Davis. "Massage your face and jawline to boost circulation and encourage lymphatic drainage. Use a jade roller and roll in an upward motion. Then take ice cubes out of the freezer and rub them over your skin. The cold will help drain away any puffiness around the eyes or dark circles, plus get the blood flowing to your face."
Your Stomach Is Irritated
"Hangover nausea is caused by several different factors including the direct irritant effect of alcohol on the stomach lining and increased stomach acid production," says Pedram Kordrostami, a physician in London and founder of AfterDrink. "Alcohol slows down the contractility of the stomach and causes delayed gastric emptying: Eating when hungover can make you feel more nauseous as food sits in the stomach for longer."
The Rx: "The best natural anti-nausea remedy which is evidence backed is ginger," says Kordrostami. "It's still recommended by doctors first-line for pregnant women who suffer with morning sickness." Try sipping on ginger tea or nibbling fresh ginger.
Your Hormones and Electrolytes Are Imbalanced
"For many of my patients, alcohol drives their hormonal imbalances and gut dysbiosis," says Nancy Crowell, DOM, a doctor of Oriental medicine in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "When you have a hangover, you're likely experiencing dehydration, irritation of the GI, electrolyte imbalance, low blood sugar, and difficulty sleeping."
The Rx: Advises Crowell: "You can potentially avoid a hangover by eating a good healthy meal (not drinking on an empty stomach), taking a high quality B-complex the day of and after can help support your body's detoxification pathways, staying hydrated (think electrolytes), take activated charcoal (to absorb toxins), and listening to your body (stop at the buzz)."
You Hold on to Fat
When alcohol enters your body, the liver recognizes it as a dangerous toxin and goes to work processing it before anything else—including fats and sugar. If you drink to excess, your liver can be too busy eliminating alcohol's toxins to burn the fat and sugar in your last meal or snack. Over time, those will hang around as increased body fat.
The Rx: Your body can process about one drink per hour. Experts like the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association advise that you not go beyond "moderate drinking"—one drink a day for women and two for men.
You're Low on B Vitamins
"Alcohol also depletes your body of B vitamins, particularly thiamine, or B1," says Quinn. "Chronic use of alcohol does this to a much more major degree."
The Rx: "Hydrating with water and taking B vitamins prior to a hard night of alcohol use can help decrease symptoms of hangover," says Quinn.
Your Brain Swells
Does the pounding headache of a hangover feel like your brain is banging on your skull? Well, it kind of is. "Dehydration causes the brain to swell, and this is the headache you are feeling," says Hassanein.
The Rx: "Listen to your body and it will tell you what to do," says Hassanein. "If you feel drowsy or tired, get sleep. If you have a headache and thirsty, drink lots of fluids."
You Feel Anxious or Depressed
Alcohol makes us feel relaxed because it mimics a neurotransmitter called GABA, which blocks impulses between nerve centers in the brain and inhibits an excitatory neurotransmitter called glutamate. When alcohol leaves the bloodstream, you can experience a "rebound effect" in which glutamate springs into action, making you feel jittery, irritable or down.
The Rx: Hydration and aerobic activity may help. But this may be one you just have to sleep off—treating it with a "hair of the dog" will only compound the problem.
Your Blood Sugar Is Low
If you feel dizzy, weak or fatigued during a hangover, it could be due to the fact that alcohol depletes the body's supply of glucose (blood sugar), which is stored in the liver, and prevents it from making more.
The Rx: Restore your body's natural balance by eating some carbohydrates—Harvard Medical School recommends toast and juice.
Your Muscles Ache
As the liver processes alcohol, it breaks down into acetaldehyde, a powerful toxin. If you've consumed more alcohol than the body can process, that excess acetaldehyde can hang out in the body, causing inflammation, muscle aches and fatigue.
The Rx: Hydration and aerobic activity can help your body clear toxins. If you take an over-the-counter pain reliever, avoid acetaminophen—it can interact with any alcohol remaining in your body and damage your liver. As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.
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