8 Things That Happen To Your Body When You're Hungover

You probably know the feeling: Waking up with cotton balls in your mouth, your stomach doing tortuous acrobatics in your belly, you head pounding to an incessant, throbbing beat. You are simultaneously exhausted and unable to sleep, your face feels puffy, and a dull ache in every joint and muscle makes you suspect that somehow you were hit by a tractor and then forgot about it. You struggle to remember exactly why it seemed so important to do those final tequila shots, while at the same time wishing that a giant crack in the Earth would open up and swallow you whole, thus putting an end to your pulsating, bottomless misery. Oh, the joys of the hangover.

When you’re in the middle of one, a hangover can seem like nothing so much a cruel cosmic punishment from the gods, a price we pay to the universe in exchange for having fun, but there’s actually lots of science on hand to explain to us why an excess of alcohol has the power to make use feel like desiccated remains abandoned in a shallow grave. Scientists refer to hangovers as “veisalgia,” and although they don’t know everything about why and how they occur, what they do know may help you understand why you feel so rotten after a night on the town. (It won’t, however, make your hangover actually go away. The only thing you can do to make that happen is drink a lot of fluids, eat some real food, and try to rest).

Read on to find out just what kind of havoc booze is wreaking on your hung-over body:

1. Dehydration is part (but not all) of it.

Dehydration is one factor of many that make you feel like crap after having a lot to drink. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it makes you need to urinate more frequently than normal. Booze inhibits your pituitary gland’s production of vasopressin, the hormone that helps the body to retain water. When vasopressin is suppressed, liquids essentially go straight through you and you have to pee a lot. That means that your organs — including your brain — are struggling to get enough fluid. This lack of fluid can cause the blood vessels of your brain and the tissues surrounding the brain constrict, triggering the pain receptors in your head and causing headaches. Dehydration can also cause lightheadedness, fatigue, and that gross sticky feeling in your mouth when you wake up.

2. Alcohol produces toxins in your body.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the current reigning theory behind why hangovers are so awful is that they are a result of toxins produced by alcohol consumption. When our bodies are trying to process alcohol, there can be an accumulation of excess acetaldehyde, a chemical compound that can be quite toxic — even more so than alcohol itself. Acetaldehyde can cause “sweating, skin flushing, nausea and vomiting.” Sound familiar?

3. Booze jumbles your immune system.

Alcohol can trigger your immune system the same way that an infection does — except that, instead of fighting disease, your immune system is fighting the alcohol you just consumed. Studies have shown that hangover symptoms are often accompanied by high levels of cytokines, proteins that the immune system uses to signal cells. When you’re sick, your immune system might use cytokines to fight infection by giving you a fever, for example. Drinking alcohol can cause your immune system to release cytokines in the same way, causing exhaustion, achy muscles, nausea, and headaches. You might also experience memory loss.

4. It does a number on your stomach.

The Mayo Clinic reports that alcohol causes the stomach to produce excess acid and “delays stomach emptying,” which can irritate the stomach lining. This irritation can cause general pain, queasiness, or vomiting. 

5. Some drinks cause worse hangovers than others.

Not all drinks are created equal when it comes to hangovers. Types of alcohol that are high in congeners — chemicals produced during fermentation that aren’t alcohol — cause worse hangovers than drinks that have lower levels. So you’re not crazy if you feel like red wine gives you particularly bad hangovers — red wine, along with dark colored liquors like whisky, brandy, and bourbon, have higher levels of congeners that light-colored alcohol like white wine and vodka.

6. You sleep a lot, but not well.

When you have a hangover, you feel fatigued for a number of reasons, but one of them is simply that you’re not getting good sleep. Alcohol can make you feel tired, and send you to sleep quickly, but it can also disrupt your ability to experience restorative sleep. A recent study of test subjects who drank alcohol before going to bed found that they had higher levels of “delta activity,” or deep, restorative sleep, than subjects who didn’t drink. However, at the same time, they also had heightened “alpha activity,” or more active activity. The alpha activity was enough to counteract the good, restorative qualities of the delta activity. Time reported that “such dual activity patterns are typically seen among people with chronic pain conditions.”  

7. Hangovers can include anxiety and panic.

Many people may not realize that anxiety and even panic can be symptoms of a bad hangover. In 2012, a Dutch study found that eight percent of test subjects felt anxiety during hangovers, while a third felt “disorientation” and half reported feeling “agitated.” Psychiatrist Dr. Michael Baigent suggests that these feelings may be linked to the affects of acetaldehyde, the toxic chemical described above, which includes “very nasty symptoms” like anxiety and quickened pulse. He explained to the Sydney Morning Herald, ''As the alcohol wears off, you lose the sedating effect.''

8. When you’re hung-over, you’re not the sharpest tool in the box.

If your brain feels less that intelligent the morning after a big night, you’re not imagining things: A 2013 study found that hangovers have a detrimental affect on working memory, the parts of our brains that deal with new and existing information. Among test subjects, the effectiveness of working memory dropped by five to ten percent when hung-over. Subjects with hangovers also committed thirty percent more errors than usual when performing tasks that rely on working memory, and their reaction times slowed.

Images: Flóra Soós/Flickr; Giphy (12, 3, 4, 5)


Must Reads