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Published On: Tue, Apr 17th, 2018

What Hangovers Do to the Mind and Body

There is a reason why alcohol is so popular: it’s an effective short-term relief from the stresses of work and life that many people feel week in and week out. It’s also deeply ingrained in the norms of western society to the degree that avoiding going out for drinks with friends could mean a truncation of social life. In fact, studies indicate more than 50% of adults drank within the past month. But while drinking can offer a momentary respite from stress, the keyword is just that: momentary.

photo “Tbone” by AB via wikimedia commons

While moderate alcohol consumption is associated with some benefit, namely in respect to coronary health, drinking in excess is correlated with a multitude of health deficits and progeny of disease, including cancer, pancreatitis, and liver disease.

One of the well-known and immediate downsides that result from alcohol consumption is known colloquially as “the hangover”. There are many mechanisms speculated to blame for the tragic state of affairs many of us experience the morning after a night of drinking. Some of these effects are related to the direct action that alcohol has on the body, while others are precipitated by the absence of alcohol in the hours after.

Physical Symptoms

Laden with headaches, fatigue, and increased sensitivity to light or sound, some of the feelings of a hangover can be traced to alcohol’s action on the sympathetic nervous system. This might also include rapid heartbeat and increased blood pressure. The presence and severity of these symptoms are variable depending on the individual, as well as the type of alcohol and quantity consumed.

These generally manifest as the blood alcohol content begins to drop and return to baseline, and may continue for 24 hours thereafter. The symptoms that lay siege on the body in the hours after a night of binging share similarities with the effects felt in mild alcohol withdrawal, leading to speculation that a hangover is itself the effect of withdrawal from alcohol. They differ, however, in the length of time they are present.

Real Life Risks of Hangovers

It is important to note that separate from the intoxication itself, these after effects can reportedly be detrimental to performance in certain tasks, as evidenced by studies conducted on aircraft pilots in a simulation. For this reason, one should exercise extra caution when drinking if a known responsibility to operate heavy machinery is in the drinker’s imminent future.

As if the physical risk were not enough, drinkers should be mindful of the fact that driving a car the next day can in fact result in a DUI. Even if you subjectively perceive the effects of alcohol to be gone by the time you need to drive home the next day, keep in mind that impaired judgement is a hallmark of drinking, and that a night of sleep is not always enough to restore mental facilities entirely.

Unforeseen Dangers

While the severity of hangovers tends to be associated with the total amount of alcohol consumed, there are some cases in which even a small amount of drinking can translate to a disastrous slew of symptoms. This is often a result of the other chemicals found in alcoholic beverages.

For example, a person may reason that a gin and tonic is a relatively healthy alternative to drinking several heavy beers when out with friends, only to wake up the next day feeling as though they drank far more than they really did. This could be due to an immune reaction to the principal constituent of tonic known as quinine. The effects of an allergic reaction to quinine share a great deal of overlap with a normal hangover, so it helps to be aware of your body’s unique sensitivities.

Other common constituents of alcoholic beverages which carry their own brand of potential symptoms include congeners. These are compounds found in beverages in minute but formidable quantities that result from the distilling and fermenting processes. If looking to err on the side of safety, opt for a drink with fewer congeners, like vodka, as opposed to drinks like bourbon.

Sugar is yet another seemingly inconspicuous additive to alcohol which can rev a hangover into overdrive. An added danger of sugary drinks is their uncanny ability to disguise how much alcohol is in any given cocktail. Drinks with more water and less sugar are advised for anyone circumspect about their happy hour escapades.

Beware of Frequent Hangovers

If you have noticed that you frequently experience hangovers, this could be a sign that alcohol consumption is beginning to become a more serious problem. Whether it be due to college life, a new group of friends, or a stressful job or relationship, there is an infinite number of circumstances that may spur an increase in alcohol consumption. Worse yet, this could lead to a dependence if early action is not taken.

It is important that chronic consumption of alcohol not be shrugged off as harmless. Even if it means missing out on a few happy hours or nights out with friends, cutting down on drinking is scarcely a decision people regret. If you feel that drinking is becoming a problem, it is probably a voice within yourself worth listening to.

An alcohol detox center remains one of the best ways to get clean. There will be a staff on hand 24/7, with professionals trained in handling problem drinking.  

Author: Richie Hedderman

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