The Science Behind Your Hangover
We’ve all been there—you’re sitting on the floor of your living room (or bathroom, bedroom, or kitchen, really) wondering why your head feels like the real-life, physical equivalent of that scene from The Simpsons where Homer gets stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Congratulations, you’re hungover. “It’s horrible and I never want to feel this way again,” you think to yourself as you recount the previous evening in your throbbing, sad excuse for a head.
Here’s the big problem: There’s so much contradictory information out there about what causes hangovers and how to resolve them that the above scenario inevitably happens again.
SEE MORE: The Ultimate Hangover Cures
Enter Adam Rogers, articles editor at Wired and author of Proof: The Science of Booze, which sets out to answer and explain, in plain terms, how booze is made and, yes, the science of your godforsaken hangover.
"I wrote a long feature for Wired about a fungus that seemed to live on fumes from aging whiskey,” says Rogers about the origins of his interest in booze and the beginning of Proof. What he found was that no one had published a modern, general interest book about the science of alcohol distilling: “I found a book that was 100 years old and others that were way too academic.”
He knew immediately that whatever he wrote about hangovers would be a “crowd-pleasing” section of the book. So he dedicated a chapter to the subject and placed it at the end of the book (“I wanted people to feel rewarded when they got to the end [of the book]”).
"If you’re a person who drinks, you’ve probably had one," says Rogers, "and you probably hated it." Let’s get to the bottom of why they happen and what you can do about it, shall we?
Rogers cites three myths that everyone has heard causes hangovers. He says that there is no scientific research to back them up.
1. I Feel Like Death Because Alcohol Made Me Dehydrated - Rogers points out that this seems to be most commonly blamed as a major cause of hangovers. “It’s something you feel so clearly when you’ve got one,” explains Rogers, “that when you wake up you think you’re dehydrated.”
2. Mixing Boozes Will Make You More Hungover - “I always get a kick out of this one,” says Rogers, “mostly because of an Onion article on the subject from a few years back.”
3. Vodka Makes Me Less Hungover Then Other Spirits - “The idea that vodka—which is essentially water and ethanol—will you give you less of a hangover than a spirit like whiskey is completely false.”
Obviously, if you find yourself hungover, you’ve drunk too much.
Scientifically, you’ve ingested more ethanol (the active ingredient in alcohol that both gets you drink and causes your nasty hangover) than your body can process.
Rogers says that one surefire way to help with this is to make sure you have enough to eat before drinking. There’s no real strategy in regards to what you should eat, “you just want volume.” This will slow down the absorption of ethanol through your gut and can help dampen whatever hangover you might develop.
Hangover cures are a major industry at this point, from homeopathic methods to packaged products sold in drug stores. Rogers says that several widely available solutions have been proven to help reduce the uncomfortable side effects of hangovers, which include prickly pear cactus extract and dihydromyricetin.
The bottom line: The only way to truly prevent a hangover is to drink less. But even that point is complicated, since hangovers affect individuals differently. “Why do you get a headache, while I get nausea?” Science has yet to answer that question.