What is a hangover? Meaning, Causes, without drinking & Help

Most people have had a hangover but if they were to define what it really is… it would be quite challenging.  Read on to learn what a hangover is or meaning according to  science, history, causes and why you are likely get it without drinking plus what can help.

What is a Hangover? Definition, Meaning & Prevalence.

How does science  define a hangover?

A hangover is a constellation of unpleasant physical and mental symptoms that follow a bout of heavy alcohol drinking. Hangovers begin within several hours after the cessation of alcohol intake. At this point the person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is falling.

When the BAC is zero, the symptoms of hangover peak and may be incessant for 24 hours after. A set of symptoms ranging from mild to severe are observed with the milder occurring before the BAC levels to zero.

Hangover and Mild Alcohol Withdrawal

In Science, different terms may be used to define closely resembling events. It is important as a scientist to differentiate between hangover and mild alcohol withdrawal initialized as ‘AW’. The misconstrue is that hangover and mild alcohol withdrawal are one and the same thing.

The reality is that they may only have and overlap of symptoms. The difference is that a hangover is experienced even after a single bout of drinking while a mild alcohol withdrawal occurs after multiple bouts. To be more specific, AW comes after there is addiction to the alcohol. At this point, there is a forceful need and urge to drink even if the end results are undesirable and harmful.

Another difference between the two is that while a hangover lasts only hours while AW last days. Hallucinations and seizures are only seen in AW.

A man with a hangover

How other users from online platforms define it

Online platforms describe hangover as;

‘A state or feeling of discomfort, dyscoordination and disorientation experiences the ‘morning after’ very heavy drinking with groggy, tipsy and dried out feeling’.

These words have been collected from different comments and mustered to come up with the definition of a hangover. The definition is right though in better understood and more specific terms.

Some more definitions from online platforms;

‘It’s when you drink too much in one day and the next day your head hurts’

‘A hangover is when you drink too much alcohol and in the morning you are sick and tired, and your vision is blurry’.

‘Basically you have drunk too much alcohol the previous night/same day and you get headaches can often throw up and you feel bloody foul!!!!’

From the quoted definitions, you feel the closer connection between how you would define hangover and what it really is. The beauty of hearsay.

In the simplest terms possible, a hangover is….

An array of symptoms of discomfort, pain and loss of coordination hours after you have had a couple of drinks of alcohol.

Prevalence of hangover

In general, the higher the amount of alcohol and duration of alcohol intake, the longer the hangover and so are the severity of its symptoms. This shows that some people experience a hangover even with few drinks that may be severe while some who take many drinks in a single spree, report experience a hangover monthly.

In one such study, including subjects in a number of 1, 041 drinkers, and 50% who drank two or more drinks per day reported quite the expected contrary. That they experienced a hangover last in the previous year and less frequently than subjects who took way less (Smith and Barnes 1983)[1]; (Pristach et al. 1983)[2]

How long does a hangover stay? It may last from 1-4 days. Find details in this article: How long do Hangovers last? 2-3 & 4

Why  Hangover? What is the History?

The term hangover was originally a 19th century expression describing unfinished business—something left over (hung over )from a meeting—or ‘survival.’ In 1904, the meaning “after-effect of drinking too much” first surfaced, according to Wikipedia. If you give it a deeper thought, it is actually a form of unfinished business.

As some individuals on yahoo forum put it, will put it, its hung over from what you did the night before: because your head is hanging over the toilet, or your bed, or your whatever

“My first return of sense or recollection was upon waking in a strange, dismal-looking room, my head aching horridly, pains of a violent nature in every limb, and deadly sickness at the stomach. From the latter I was in some degree relieved by a very copious vomiting. Getting out of bed, I looked out of the only window in the room, but saw nothing but the backs of old houses, from which various miserable emblems of poverty were displayed . . . . At that moment I do not believe in the world there existed a more wretched creature than myself. I passed some moments in a state little short of despair . . . .” —William Hickey (Spenser 1913)

These words were written in 1768 by William Hickey and touches on the description of a hangover with symptomatology.

Causes -Why do you get a Hangover from Alcohol & Wine Drinking

The occurrence of a hangover may be attributed to various causes. These may be:

Effect of alcohol on the body organs and the brain

These effects include:

Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance

Alcohol acts as a diuretic promoting excessive urination. This, it does, by inhibiting the antidiuretic hormone. This hormone is released from the pituitary gland in the mid-brain and is released for its reabsorption stimulation. Reabsorption of water and other electrolytes preserves water and prevents dehydration.

During the drinking spree when the BAC is at its peak, frequent urination will occur but with decrease in BAC, the hormone increases to its normal. 20% w/v alcohol causes elimination of 600 to 1000 mL of water in a few hours. (Eisenhofer et al. 1985)[3].

Low blood sugar

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism 1994, alcohol alters the metabolic state of the liver. The liver is physiologically responsible for the regulation of blood sugar. Since alcohol leads to a fatty liver, glucose synthesis is inhibited.

Hypoglycemia in most occasions follows drinking heavily without having observed proper diet in the past few hours or days. Hypoglycemia itself causes symptoms resembling that of diabetics.

Circadian rhythm disturbance

Alcohol has dual effects on the brain function. It has both sedating and stimulatory effects depending on the extent of drinking. During the first few hours of drinking, it is stimulatory, due to the triggered release of dopamine which is a ‘happy hormone’.

However, with continued drinking, it causes stimulation of gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) which is a central nervous system neuro-inhibitor. This causes sedation.

Sleep patter is disrupted when the dopamine neurons fire again after sedation. Hormones balance themselves out to an equilibrium. There is normally rebound excitation when the BAC falls. Insomnia kicks in. alcohol also interferes with the regulation of cortisol the stress hormone that interferes with the circadian rhythm. (Gauvin et al. 1997)[4]

The elimination of alcohol from organs

Neurotransmitters such as glutamate (excitatory) and Gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) which is sedating, regulate the neuronal responses to alcohol. In chronic alcohol exposure, the GABA is reduced so as to counter the sedating effects of alcohol. This means that the sympathetic neurons are firing and is also coordinating the response to stress.

This system is responsible for the fight and flight seen in danger with increase in blood pressure and heart rate. When the alcohol is removed from the organs, it leaves the sympathetic neurons in a firing state. This also contributes to the symptoms of hangover when the BAC is reduced.

Metabolites of alcohol

Alcohol undergoes metabolism in the liver to reduce it to its less toxic metabolites. Alcohol is first metabolized to an intermediate product, acetaldehyde then to acetate. The enzymes responsible are alcohol and aldehyde dehydrogenases.

Acetaldehyde is chemically active and responsible for the toxic effects of alcohol. It binds to proteins and other important biological compounds and disrupts the normal cellular function. Acetaldehyde accumulates faster than it is being converted to acetate since the aldehyde enzyme is slower. Genetic variances of this enzyme also results in very rapid accumulation. This metabolite is responsible for the persistence of a hangover period.

Congeners in the beverage

Congeners are biologically active compounds that contribute profoundly to the taste and smell characteristics of the alcohol. They also give the beverage its characteristic color. They are products of fermentation and aging contributes to its increased presence in beverages such as wine. White wine has less congeners while red wine has high quantities of congeners.

This explains why red wines are associated with higher prevalence of hangovers hours later. Whiskey and brandy also contain congeners. Methanol, is a congener. It contributes to the overall hangover effect of the beverage by competing with the enzymes that metabolize alcohol. This causes a build-up of alcohol in the blood. (Chapman 1970; Pawan 1973)[5]

Alcohol-related behaviors and personal traits

The Mac-Andrew Scale measures the hangover symptoms and its severity in people with personality risk for alcoholism. People with anger and positive family history have decreased sensitivity to the intoxicating effects of alcohol. They find solace in alcoholism and consume more consequentially causing severe hangovers. (Schuckit and Smith 1996)[6].

Although current evidence suggests that more than one factor most likely contributes to the overall hangover state, the following sections address each of the postulated causes in turn.

What causes a Hangover Feeling without drinking

You may have experienced a hangover feeling without drinking. How does this happen? What causes this creepy feeling? Here are some causes.

Gut Fermentation Syndrome

This is an auto-fermentation disease that involves fermentation of food in the gut into alcohol. This occurs in the presence of fungi such as candida. Candidiasis can occur in the intestines due to an imbalance of the normal gut flora, dysbiosis.

Dysbiosis occurs as a result of a course of prolonged antimicrobial treatment or an autoimmune disease. The autoimmune disease may destroy the wall of the intestines and prevent absorption of food increasing its stay in the gut.

Stressors that disturb the brain-gut axis also result in dysbiosis. The brain gut axis is a cross-talk between the brain and the gut during stress that results in the gut discomfort in tense and stressful moments. This syndrome produces alcohol in high quantities higher than the legal driving limit. (CNN)[7]

Surgical anesthesia

During the recovery stage of surgical anesthesia, patients may feel weak, fatigued, blurred vision and coordination problems. These event is also referred to as a hangover effect. Patients at this stage are fortunately monitored for proper surgical outcomes.

Sugar Hangover

Consuming too much sugary foods also causes a hangover. The sugar provides a culture on which candida thrives and in turn churns out acetaldehyde during fermentation. Acetaldehyde results in effects similar to alcohol consumed and is what is branded as ‘Sugar Rush’

Well, you’ve just learnt about the causes of a hangover even when you are not drunk. What are the signs and symptoms? Common signs and symptoms include;

Find details here Mild and severe Signs of a Hangover

What helps a Hangover?

There are quite a number of things that help a hangover. Below are some. Follow the link for details

Take the right food and drinks such as water

Take some medication such as blow fish, alka sletzer, berocca etc. Find out more on how they work and their effects

Consider home remedies, and other fixes to cure a hangover fast;

Sources and References

  • [1] SMITH, C.M., AND BARNES, G.M. Signs and symptoms of hangover: Prevalence and relationship to alcohol use in a general adult population. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 11(3/4):249–269, 1983.
  • [2] PRISTACH, C.A.; SMITH, C.M.; AND WHITNEY, R.B. Alcohol withdrawal syndromes: Prediction from detailed medical and drinking histories. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 11(2):177–199, 1983
  • [3] EISENHOFER, G.; LAMBIE, D.G.; WHITESIDE, E.A.; AND JOHNSON, R.H. Vasopressin concentrations during alcohol withdrawal. British Journal of Addiction 80(2):195–199, 1985.
  • [4] GAUVIN, D.V.; CHENG, E.Y.; AND HOLLOWAY, F.A. Biobehavioral correlates. In: Galanter, M., ed. Recent Developments in Alcoholism: Volume 11.
  • [5] CHAPMAN, L.F. Experimental induction of hangover. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol 5(Suppl. 5):67–86, 1970.
  • [6] SCHUCKIT, M.A., AND SMITH, T.L. An 8-year follow-up of 450 sons of alcoholic and control subjects. Archives of General Psychiatry 53(3): 202–210, 1996
  • [7] http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/19/health/gut-fermentation-syndrome/

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