Hangovers: A scientific breakdown

The sunlight peering through the curtain is blinding. The glass of water is a million miles away. Your stomach is inciting rebellion, and you have at least one of the following: the shakes, headache, loss of appetite, nausea or fatigue. You, my friend, have a hangover.  At least you’re not on your own this week.

We’ve all been told the dos and don’ts of drinking before coming to university: ‘Drink plenty of water throughout the night’, ‘eat greasy food in the morning,’ and so on. But what are the scientifically proven facts behind hangovers cures, and are there ways of making them any more bearable?

It’s well-known that white spirits are less painful in the mornings pitched against darker beverages like red wine or bourbon. This is because dark alcohol has 27 times more toxins than light alcohol. It’s also true that alcohol is a diuretic, and dehydration causes the body’s organs to attempt to replenish themselves with water from wherever they can – unfortunately, this is usually the brain. A dehydrated cranium will suffer all manners of misfortune. One such misfortune is a decrease in size, which in turn will strain the membranes connecting the brain to the skull, resulting in the dreaded hangover headache.

But are hangovers as simple as we think? Research conducted by the Alcohol Hangover Research Group (AHRG), dedicated to discovering the causes and truths behind the alleged cures of hangovers, shows that hangovers are an inflammatory response. This is the same response we feel when we get an infection.

This inflammatory response to alcohol within the body appears in the form of elevated levels of cytokines, small communication signal molecules within the immune system. A sober and healthy person with heightened cytokine levels will feel a hangover as strong as the most steadfast of socialites.

It’s reasonable to suggest a simple approach to curing a hangover; cure an inflammatory response with an anti-inflammatory treatment. Hello paracetamol and ibuprofen. These cheap staples will reduce your cytokine levels sufficiently to return the body to (almost) functioning levels, but avoid aspirin; it will irritate your stomach more than you already have.

Even more pressing for students, elevated cytokine levels have been found to inhibit memory formation. Now when you’re shamefully attempting to piece together last night with your flat-mates or scratching your brain for that quote during the exam, these lapses in recollection may be excused by amplified cytokine levels, but please don’t try that excuse with your lecturers.

Alice Hargreaves Jones

Image courtesy of Huffington Post

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