Giving up the booze for January? Good, because here's what hangovers do to your body

Can’t look at another drink?

DID YOU HIT the booze hard over Christmas time? If so, you, like many other people, might be going on the dry for the month of January.

Whether it’s to detox your body, save money or simply give your liver a break, it is most likely a good move, as a veisalgia — the medical term for a hangover — can do some serious damage to your body.

Breaking down alcohol


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 metabolise 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 metabolises 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.

“Hair of the dog”

There’s a biological basis for the idea that “hair of the dog” helps — but that also explains why hangovers are a risk factor for alcoholism.

There's a biological basis for the idea that "hair of the dog" helps — but that also explains why hangovers are a risk factor for alcoholism.


If someone has a drink the next morning, their body will soon realise that there's more ethanol in their bodies to start breaking down. Since our bodies prefer ethanol, they'll stop breaking down methanol into those toxins at this point, which is why a bit of the "hair of the dog that bit you" can at least temporarily take the pain and sick feeling of a hangover away.

Stephens says that researchers think this is why hangovers may be a risk factor for alcoholism instead of a natural deterrent to becoming an alcoholic. Studies show that alcoholics get some of the most severe hangovers around.

Better or worse as you get older?

Hangovers actually get less severe as you get older.

Hangovers actually get less severe as you get older.

This may seem impossible — lots of people recall being able to party AND study back when they were in college.

But a study in the journal Alcoholism of 51,645 Danish men and women found that the older someone gets, the less likely they are to experience a severe hangover after a binge drinking session — even after controlling for food consumption and quantity and frequency of regular drinking.

Our bet? You might just physically feel worse in general if you are older and less fit than you once were. Plus, you might have more responsibilities that force you to get off the couch.


Hangovers stress you out.

Hangovers stress you out.

Drinking and being hungover causes a spike in the stress hormone cortisol in your body, which has a long list of effects.

Although we need cortisol to respond to stress, excess levels of the hormone can lead to improper stress responses, altering our mental status, metabolism, and more. Those high irregular cortisol levels can make us less able to deal with the regular stresses of life.

For heavy drinking alcoholics, it takes seven days of abstinence for cortisol levels to stabilise.

Binge drinking

binge-drinking--the-cause-of-hangovers--at-least-temporarily-wrecks-your-immune-system Business Insider Business Insider

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

Driving while hungover 

shutterstock_210162409 Shutterstock / Olaf Naami Shutterstock / Olaf Naami / Olaf Naami

Being hungover makes you a terrible driver.

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.

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%.

Give me water!

Drinking dehydrates you, and that dehydration usually accompanies a hangover but probably isn't responsible for it.

It's common wisdom that hangovers — and the accompanying headaches — are due to dehydration. People swear by chugging a jug of water before bed.

But most researchers say that the dehydrating effect of alcohol is exaggerated, though still real. At least some of those dry mouth symptoms (and definitely headache symptoms) come from the breaking down of alcohol, not dehydration. And while we need water in our bodies to break down alcohol, we still won't feel better until our systems have dealt with the byproducts of that process.

If your hangover is bad enough that you are vomiting or have diarrhea, definitely rehydrate. And go ahead and do it if it makes you feel better anyway. But don't expect a magical cure.

Nothing computes

your-brain-doesnt-work-right-when-you-are-hungover Business Insider Business Insider

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.


Hangovers make you tired, but some hangover symptoms also overlap with the lack of sleep that can be caused by alcohol consumption.

Researchers say that it's hard to isolate the hangover itself from the other effects of drinking too much in real life conditions, especially those caused by lack of sleep.

Heavy alcohol consumption can knock you out, but most people experience disruptions to the second half of their sleep cycle if they've been drinking. This further contributes to daytime sleepiness, which has its own negative effects on cognitive and motor skill performance.

But hangovers also frequently lead to low blood sugar, which can make people moody and sluggish.


Food helps with hangover symptoms.

Food helps with hangover symptoms.


While most "hangover cures" aren't shown to do much of anything (sorry, burnt toast and pickle juice), one thing that does help alleviate hangover symptoms is food, particularly, carbohydrates.

Researchers think that this is because the glucose boost provided by eating those brunchy carbohydrates we love helps restore depleted blood sugar levels.

So help yourself to some waffles, although, if you're giving up the booze this January you won't need them.

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