Dr. Jacqueline Gerhart: How does a hangover affect health?
Madison, Wisconsin - UW Health Family Medicine physician Jacqueline Gerhart writes a column that appears Tuesdays on madison.com and in the Wisconsin State Journal. Columns are re-published here with permission.
As we prepare for New Years', I was wondering what actually happens to my body when I get a hangover? Does it affect my health? Is there anything I that can do to minimize hangovers?
The medical term for hangover is veisalgia, from the Norwegian word for "uneasiness following debauchery" (kveis) and the Greek word for "pain" (algia). Drunkenness and hangovers have existed since biblical times. Check out information on Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. So if hangover symptoms have been described for centuries, why is there no cure?
Basically, it is difficult to shut down your body's own mechanisms for metabolism of ethanol (the intoxicating chemical in our alcoholic beverages). Now stay with me, we're going to talk chemistry. When you drink alcohol, your body recognizes it as a toxin in your stomach. Your body then produces an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. This enzyme converts alcohol to acetaldehyde. When high levels of acetaldehyde occur in the blood, symptoms of nausea, diarrhea, headache, and grogginess occur.
Hangovers are affected by things you can change and things you can't. You can't change your genetics, age or sex. You can change your number of drinks, the time over which you consume them, the type of alcohol, the alcohol percentage, and how often you drink. Stating the obvious, you can also choose not to drink — no alcohol means no hangover.
To help prevent a hangover, minimize the amount of alcohol your body metabolizes at one time. Your ability to break down alcohol is similar to a chocolate assembly line: the more chocolates that build up without a box to go in, the more the employees are stressed to find places for the extra chocolates. (I am reminded of the "I Love Lucy" chocolate episode.) In the same way, the more alcohol that is metabolized at once, the more waste products that build up and lead to hangovers. To prevent this, alternate a glass of water for each drink, eat prior to drinking, and stay hydrated. A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine states that vitamin B6 may reduce hangover symptoms, and that drinking clear liquors — such as vodka and gin — may cause hangovers less frequently.
If a hangover is inevitable (note: I'm not condoning drinking to excess), treat the symptoms. For nausea, drink water or a clear carbonated beverage. For headaches, try ibuprofen — mixing Tylenol and alcohol in excess can stress your liver. Also, remember that people with a hangover may pose a risk to themselves or others. So, try to avoid operating machinery and stressful situations. Sleeping off the hangover is also a great way to treat it, as time is often the only true cure.
If you notice that you are constantly battling hangover symptoms, you may have an alcohol problem. Check out the UW Health website for Madison-area resources that range from support groups to individual programs and counseling. Some examples include the NewStart program at Meriter, and the UW Health Gateway Recovery Clinic. For resources in your area, contact a local counselor, social worker or your public health department.
Stay healthy and safe this season!
This column provides general health information and is not specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). It is not a professional medical opinion or a diagnosis. Always consult your personal health care provider about your concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Gerhart to people submitting questions.
Date Published: 12/06/2011