What is a hangover is a popular question and the answer looks to vary, person to person. One way or another, there are a number of common variables that add up to hangover; types of beverages consumed, quantity consumed, duration of consumption, etc. Generally, over-indulgence in alcohol leads to a variety of symptoms, from cotton-mouth and pounding headaches, to soreness and nausea … the list goes on! So what is a hangover !? We'll break it down further in the following paragraphs.

Chemistry

Pick your poison! Whether its beer, wine or liquor, they all have the same common chemical; ethanol, generally referred to as alcohol. The issue with ethanol, is that as the body metabolized ethanol, a much more toxic chemical is produced: acetaldehyde. This awful toxin is nearly 10 times more toxic than ethanol and is even more difficult for the body to produce. In particular, acetaldehyde is processed by the liver. Several anti-oxidants are synthesized by the liver to help break down the elevated levels of toxins. For a while, the body can keep up, however, once consumption envelopes these anti-oxidants, acetaldehyde begin to accumulate. This accumulation is one answer to “what is a hangover?” The accumulation of acetaldehyde acts as an oxidative stress on the body, yielding many of the negative side effects we experience after drinking. (eg nausea, soreness, dehydration, etc.).

Dehydration

The second answer to “what is a hangover” is dehydration. After the sunset of what's often referred to as “breaking the seal,” frequent urination shortly follows. This is a direct consequence of consuming alcohol. Our bodies are designed to keep all of our systems in equilibrium and that includes our levels of hydration. In particular, our kidneys are responsible for maintaining hydration, balance of electrolytes, and nutrients. Ethanol effectively tricks, or confuses, receptors in the body signaling to the kidneys to purge all incoming fluids. The result is that the majority of the fluids consumed are excreted and our bodies do not absorb the appropriate levels of water or electrolytes. Subsequently, we experience many of the symptoms described before; headaches, aches, pains, and soreness. This is yet another answer to the question of “what is a hangover?”

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is a result of both the chemical properties of alcohol as well as the social standards of drinking. Late night parties and beer bongs are not helping anyone! Regardless, alcohol itself is a culprit to sleep deprivation. Alcohol directly affects our quality of sleep. REM sleep is the deepest, most restful state of sleep that the body can achieve. Studies have shown that ethanol interrupts this REM sleep, thereby depriving our bodies from a deep resting state. Poor sleep has shown to have a number of negative effects on the body, such as tiredness, aching, and unclear thinking; yet another answer to the question of ” what is a hangover ?”

Summary

So, what is a hangover? From our discussion, we can see that it is a number of factors all providing varying results. Alcohol and the social activities that follow contribute to increased toxicity levels, dehydration, sleep deprivation, and nutrient depletion. When added up, we experience what is commonly referred to as a hangover. Although any one individual's experience may vary, the same drivers are present, yielding similar side effects to all who consume alcohol. Nonetheless, alcohol is a part of our culture and I do not see another prohibition taking place soon.