What Hangovers Do To Your Body And Brain

Hangovers don't deter drinkingShutterstockThe beginning of a long night

If you were out partying last night, you’re probably feeling at least a little rough today.

Perhaps your head is throbbing, your mouth is dry, and you are craving salt and sugar but aren’t certain you can stomach any food. Even worse, if you have to get any work done, your mind is foggy and it’s hard to focus.

We get it.

But what is it about veisalgia — the medical term for a hangover, derived from kveis, a Norwegian word that means “uneasiness following debauchery” and -algia, a Greek root that means “pain”  — that leaves you feeling that way?

Just a note: We’re looking at hangover symptoms specifically here, not the effects of long term alcohol abuse or alcoholism, though frequent hangovers are a sign that you could have a drinking problem. 

Linette Lopez contributed to an earlier version of this article. 

A major component of hangovers has to do with the way our bodies break down alcohol.

Researchers still don't know exactly what causes a hangover, but the way we metabolize alcohol is at least partly responsible, according to Richard Stephens, a psychology professor and member of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group, an organisation that's trying to answer questions in what they call the 'neglected issue' of hangover studies.

Stephens told The Atlantic that one thing researchers know that our body first metabolizes ethanol, the main alcohol in booze. But after we break that down we start to break down other alcohols, including methanol, which our body turns into formaldehyde and formic acid -- toxins that make you hurt.

This process happens about 10 hours after we stop drinking.

Binge drinking -- the cause of hangovers -- at least temporarily wrecks your immune system.

A recent study showed that slamming back four or five vodka shots resulted in serious disruption of people's immune systems both two and five hours after those drinks.

The aforementioned cortisol spike further suppresses our immune systems, diminishing our ability to fight off infections.

Being hungover makes you a terrible driver.

Just don't drive until you're actually sober and feeling ok, alright?

We all know that driving drunk is a terrible idea -- right? -- but it's best to stay off the road the morning after a binging session too.

A recent study found that hungover drivers performed as poorly in a driving simulator as drivers with a blood alcohol content exceeding .05%, the standard international measure for drunk driving (in most of the US, it's .08).

This matches previous research that shows that hungover study participants do as poorly (or worse) on cognitive tests and tests of motor skill, attention, and reaction time as participants with a BAC of .08%.

Your brain doesn't work right when you are hungover.

Anecdotally, we know this one to be true, but researchers have gone ahead and confirmed those findings.

Along with dizziness, nausea, and anxiety, being hungover affects your working memory, which is required for holding information in your brain, performing mental tasks, and focusing on anything.

Preliminary findings from some studies by the Alcohol Hangover Research Group show that hungover people experience about a 5-10% working memory loss, and those poor hungover souls make a shocking 30% more errors in certain tasks.

Does being hungover make you feel bad about yourself?

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Note: Linette Lopez contributed to an earlier version of this post.

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