What causes a hangover?

This is an issue that comes up once in a while. Some people swear that the ‘clean’ beer in Germany doesn’t cause a hangover, others swear that drinking dark spirits gives you more of a hangover than drinking clear ones and so on. You recognise the discussions. This time it came up because I suggested that we should take on the Ayingerbrau Challenge, a Samuel Smith’s pub crawl, next week and Gareth pointed out that their Alpine Lager beer should come with a health warning because if its ability to cause killer hangovers.

My view on the issue was simple: the more you drink the more of a hangover you get. Obviously depending on how much you’ve slept, how much other liquid you’ve drunk, how much you’ve eaten, your general health and well being, etc.

But this neededs to be cleared out. So I carried out some internet-based research.

As would have been expected, hangovers are caused mainly be dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it speeds the loss of water from the body – causing parched-mouth thirst, headaches and that feeling of continual dizziness. Nausea, vomiting and indigestion are caused by alcohol irritating the stomach lining. Also, when the liver is focusing on breaking down alcohol it struggles to supply glucose to tissues, in particular to the brain. Glucose is responsible for the brain’s energy and the lack of it results in tiredness, weakness, moodiness and decreased attention.

So far so good. But then I came across something called ‘congeners‘. Apparently they are impurities that are produced during the fermentation of alcohol. The more there are, the more of a hangover you get. According to a study in the British Medical Journal, the drinks drink that produced the most hangover symptoms was brandy, followed by red wine, rum, whiskey, white wine, gin and vodka. Another study showed that bourbon was twice as likely to cause sickness as the same amount of vodka.

To hammer the nail home, I found this in the Annals of Internal Medicine, an American medical journal:

Although larger doses of alcohol lead to more severe symptoms, hangover is not solely dose-related. Acetaldehyde, the dehydrogenated product of alcohol metabolism , might be responsible for hangover symptoms. Congeners, the byproducts of individual alcohol preparations (which are found primarily in brandy, wine, tequila, whiskey, and other dark liquors), increase the frequency and severity of hangover. Clear liquors, such as rum, vodka, and gin, tend to cause hangover less frequently, which may explain why patients with chronic alcoholism use these liquors disproportionately. In an experimental setting, 33% of patients who consumed 1.5 g/kg of body weight of bourbon (which has high congeners) but only 3% of those who consumed the same dose of vodka (which has low congeners) experienced severe hangover.

Damn, I was wrong. I’m still going on that pub crawl though.


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