All systems woe – the complexity of a hangover explained

The hangover is one of life’s unpleasant consequences and there’s still no clear cut method of curing it.It’s halfway through January already? Where are my shoes? And by the way, any breakthroughs in the science of hangovers? It’s a science, right?

It really is – and it dates back to when the ancient Greeks were cleverly pondering the nature of the universe. Think of good old Heraclitus arguing that “opposite things are identical” and “everything is and is not at the same time” and you’re left wondering: what the hell was that guy drinking? The answer: wine heavily diluted with water. Because the wise old Greeks were rightfully scared of booze – and tried all manner of things to prevent a hangover, rather cure it. Wearing flowers in one’s hair – a kind of prettifying aromatherapy – was said to calm and cool one’s humour.

Eating cabbage would neutralise the alcohol in your gut – based on the observation that cabbage and grape vines failed to grow together. The idea was that the vine could smell the farty aroma of the cabbage, and shrunk away in disgust. All of which suggests that the silver drinking horns used at the Parthenon may have been spiked with something stronger and trippier than alcohol. Flowers in the hair? Tried it at a wedding, mate. Didn’t work. Was in bed for days after trying to remember my name. Is there anything more modern you can suggest?

There’s fascinating work going on all the time but the most recent “global news and gossip” breakthrough came in 2013, when researchers from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou tested 57 different non-alcoholic drinks – herbal infusions, teas, carbonated beverages – and found that the soft drink Sprite, known as Xue bi, worked most efficiently to metabolise and therefore rid the body of alcohol. It was also found that each trialled drink had a different effect on metabolism – with some, such as hemp seed tea, causing the breakdown of booze to be retarded.

Given the mass publicity, one might expect sales of Sprite to immediately spike, instead they reportedly fell more than 9 per cent after it was reported that Sprite’s sugar content had been cut by a third for health reasons earlier that year. Regardless, Sprite is now often cited when media outlets trot out their annual hangover Top Ten, a marketing opportunity was seemingly lost. Having drunk way too much over the festive season, and anxiety kicking in, I’m now suspicious about scientists and what they really get up to. Are there not any recent folk cures of note?

Coincidentally, the Sprite discovery was announced just as the Pedialyte sensation was taking off at US college campuses via social media testimonials. Pedialyte is an electrolytes formula for babies and toddlers suffering from dehydration from diarrhoea – it can be consumed as a drink or an icy pop. By 2015, Pharrell Williams and Miley Cyrus had declared Pedialyte their best post-party friend and the Wall Street Journal was reporting that adult sales of the drink had grown by 60 per cent since 2012. Overall sales grew by 22 per cent – with adults drinking one of every three bottles sold.

At that time, Pedialyte was being opportunistically marketed to adults as “the secret to a good morning”, featuring a photograph of a suffering dude going through his refrigerator. The word “hangover” was carefully avoided. Given that dehydration is often cited as a cause of a hangover, are electrolytes actually effective?

They may help a little with the dehydration, sure. But they’re not much help with the jangled central nervous system, the loose bowels, the racing heartbeat and busy sweat glands, or your scrambled brains. Dehydration is a mere by-product of a number of complex biological processes going out of whack when we hit the grog.

Professor Joris C Verster is an associate professor of psychopharmacology at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and adjunct professor at Swinburne University of Technology. He is also the founder of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group.

In a paper titled The alcohol hangover – a puzzling phenomenon – published in Alcohol and Alcoholism (Volume 43, issue 2), a journal published by the Oxford University Press – Verster notes the “alcohol hangover and dehydration are two independent yet co-occurring processes that have different underlying mechanisms”. So what else is going on? And can you use short words? The brain’s pounding, OK?

For one thing, the careful balancing act of the endocrine system – hormones – is tipped on its backside. Vasopressin, the anti-diuretic, that stops us urinating every five minutes – and regulates blood pressure via constriction of the blood vessels – is suppressed. Vasopressin also plays a part in regulating social behaviour and sexual motivation … both of which go off the leash with drinking, and perhaps explains why some people gleefully, even erotically, take a leak in the street when they’re buzzing. Levels of renin and aldosterone, hormones that are part of a complex system that maintains blood pressure and fluid balance, are also mucked up.

Then there’s metabolic acidosis, where the body produces two much acid and the kidneys are further strained.

Plus, it appears the immune system becomes inflamed, and this is has been linked to the memory loss, delicate mood and other cognitive deficits. As Professor Verster writes, “the idea that alcohol hangover symptoms are related to immune system activation is strengthened by a relatively new discovery that the immune system and central nervous system operate in close communication with each other.” Isn’t there a simple reason why I’m hurting?

Recent research has focused on the highly toxic chemicals that are produced when the ethanol (drinking alcohol) gets metabolised by an enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is not only poisonous, but a carcinogenic – and some researchers say it’s responsible for much of the hangover experience. The more alcohol you’ve drunk, the longer it takes for the acetaldehyde to break down into harmless water and carbon dioxide. So I just have to wait for a killer chemical produced by the alcohol to go away? I mean, that’s what the boffins keep saying … it’s all about getting the booze out of the system, right?

Um. Strictly speaking, an alcohol hangover begins once the booze has all but disappeared from your bloodstream. Up until that point, any lingering misery is low-level alcohol poisoning. A hangover is the 24 hours that the body needs to get all its systems running more or less smoothly again. OMG! Are the poindexters even trying to fix this calamity?

Well, yes. It’s well known that some drinks are more devastating than others – vis a vis hangovers. Red wine, brandy and bourbon are well-known culprits – while vodka, especially if drunk with orange juice, is said to be an easier ride. The trouble lies in the by-products of the distilling process known as congeners. One of the most dangerous congeners is methanol: this is the poisonous alcohol that makes up five to 10 per cent of methylated spirits (the other 90 per cent is ethanol). Chinese and Romanian researchers have found that plum brandy has the highest concentrations of methanol. The Romanian researchers, in a paper tiled A Survey on the Methanol Content of Home Distilled Alcoholic Beverages in Transylvania found that four out of five home brews weren’t safe for human consumption. In these instances, getting a hangover was a badge of survival.

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