The Science of a Hangover

You’ve probably heard that hangovers are caused by dehydration. You might also have heard that its low blood sugar that causes them. These are sensible enough theories. Everyone who has had a few drinks knows you end up needing to pee early and often. And when you urinate, it’s not just water that leaves your system, you also lower your levels of electrolytes and potentially, your blood sugar as well. Dehydration and low blood sugar have a lot of similar symptoms a hangover, including headaches, fatigue, and nausea.

Sounds like that hangover mystery solved, huh? As convenient as an answer as that would be, researchers who have tested that theory have found it doesn’t seem to hold up. Their studies have shown that dehydration and blood sugar levels don’t seem particularly related to hangovers and their severity. But they did find that something was directly related to hangovers, and how severe of a hangover you end up having.

When you drink, inflammation occurs in your liver and intestines. This inflammation is predominantly caused by a nasty little substance called acetaldehyde, which is created when your body metabolizes alcohol. Researchers have not only found that there seems to be a link between and hangovers, but they’ve also got a pretty good idea what that link is: your immune system.

You see, the inflammation in your body when you digest gives your body the impression it’s under attack. So, the immune system responds by releasing specific immune bodies to fight off that “attack”. The heavier the response from the immune system, the more immune bodies that are dispatched, and the more immune bodies that are dispatched, unfortunately, the more severe the hangover.

This isn’t all that different from the most common of illnesses-the flu. When you get a flu, it’s not the virus that gives you the headache, the fever, the muscle aches, the nausea, all of those symptoms are a result of your immune system’s counterattack. A hangover is no different, except this time there are no viral invaders to be fought off. Now this doesn’t mean dehydration, low blood sugar, and other factors don’t contribute. There are many factors that can make a hangover worse, including not sleeping enough, smoking, your genetics, and more - but they aren’t the cause. That culprit is inflammation and the ensuing immune system response.

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