Columns / Discourse / May 11, 2011

The Neuroscience of: Hangovers

So you wake up the day after Flunk Day and your body aches, your head is pounding, and the sound of even a pin dropping is like air horns two inches from your ears. You have a hangover. Here is a run down of structures and chemicals involved in, what I would say, is one of the worst feelings ever.

A hangover is the result of a heavy night (and/or Flunk Day) of drinking. Okay, duh. And you probably know that it is mainly due to dehydration. You’ve been drinking alcohol almost exclusively and the water you do drink is like dumping a bucket of water on a forest fire: it’s not going to work.

The dehydration process begins specifically in the pituitary gland. This cues your body to release less vasopressin. Vasopressin is key in activating the kidneys to send water to the bladder. Alcohol tricks your brain—instead of retaining water, your body thinks it has way too much and decides to evacuate as much as it can.

You ever heard the first bathroom visit after drinking referred to as “breaking the seal?” It’s more or less an accurate statement. Your brain has told your body it has found a place to urinate and to start the exodus!

Now that you are dehydrated, what is the cause of that banging hangover headache? Water is scarce in your body and every organ needs to keep functioning. It’s now a fight for the H2O and your brain’s need is somewhat less than say, your heart.

With the brain K.O.-ed by the water war, it starts to decrease in size. This begins a sharp, steady and constant pull on the membranes connecting the brain to the skull. Bingo, there is your headache. This isn’t good for those nerves.

Some articles say there are different hangovers for different liquors. Red wine and dark liquors have been noted to have the worst side effects. Vodka drinkers are in luck as it is the least likely to cause a hangover.

How do you avoid a hangover? Drink water after every keg-stand. For those bros that think water is for wussies, take shots of water between shots of vodka. No one can even tell the difference. I’ve done that and successfully avoided a hangover. Or make your mixed drink with Gatorade. Or don’t complain and just get over it.

And those hangover pills like Chaser are total bunk when it comes to losing brain chemicals. Most are water pills or some coal tar and if you read the instructions, it says take one after every couple drinks instead of drinking real water after each drink. It’s for lazy people who don’t want to drink a cup of water on their journey to total inebriation.

Moral of the story: Get wasted with your friends but save your pituitary, body and reputation the damage—always keep a bottle of water handy for you or anyone else who might need it.

Gabe Paz

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