What is a Hangover? Why Aren’t Hangovers a Deterrent to Drinking?

man with Alka-seltzer and water for hangover hair of the dog

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz – that awful feeling the morning after.

Ahh, the morning after. Those who have overindulged the night before rise like zombies holding coffee cups to their foreheads. They dig in messy purses and junk drawers for painkillers and stomach settlers, piecing the previous evening’s events together like tattered scraps of paper. No one with a hangover wants to see the sunrise or go for a walk. They do not think about their careers, pets, or relationships. Indeed, they want greasy, spicy food, the hair of the dog, and a nap. Mayo Clinic says, “A hangover is a group of unpleasant signs and symptoms that can develop after drinking too much alcohol. As if feeling awful weren’t bad enough, frequent hangovers are also associated with poor performance and conflict at work.”


So, why don’t the awful effects of the morning after temper alcohol consumption or cause us to stop drinking altogether?


What is a Hangover?

Let’s start with a definition. A hangover results from a buildup of the ugly-sounding, toxic compound acetaldehyde. When you overindulge, enzymes in your liver break alcohol down into acetaldehyde, which is broken down into acetate. Acetate is relatively harmless, but acetaldehyde is not; it causes all those horrible symptoms that make the morning after so, well, horrible.


The body tries to convert acetaldehyde to acetate efficiently. However, when you drink quickly and abundantly, the liver is overworked and struggles to produce enough enzymes to break down the toxins. So the chemical that causes nausea and cold sweats lingers, damaging your insides longer than it should. Alcohol also irritates the cells in your stomach lining. This is designed to protect: a MAYDAY alarm that tells you to stop. But if you ignore (or mask) the warnings with more liquor, it causes the gastrointestinal mess you experience in the morning.


Woman holding her head with an alcohol hangover

When you drink quickly and a lot, the liver is overworked.


The Reasons Hangovers Make You Feel so Horrible

Hangover symptoms typically begin when your blood alcohol content drops or is at or near zero. You might wake in the middle of the night feeling dreadful, but the hangover is usually in full effect the morning after.

  • You are dehydrated.
  • Alcohol increases inflammation in the body.
  • Your immune system is sending out an SOS.
  • Your blood sugar is crashing.
  • The blood vessels dilate – the reason for your excruciating headache.
  • Your sleep has been disrupted.
  • You might feel dizzy and experience the “spins.”
  • Shakiness, lack of concentration, and mood disturbances abound.
  • Your heartbeat is rapid.
  • You may experience nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain.
  • Women tend to get worse hangovers than men because they have less water in their bodies.
  • Hangovers get more intense with age because the body processes are less efficient.



Why Aren’t Hangovers a Deterrent to Drinking?

Damaris J. Rohsenow, a behavioral and social sciences professor at Brown University, says, “People who drink heavily generally experience pleasurable effects while drinking, and that is what drives the decision to drink heavily again. The pain of a hangover is temporary and may be considered a nuisance rather than an important negative consequence.” So, even when drinkers suffer from too much booze, it doesn’t affect their long-term conscious drinking motivation. When in the throws of misery one might declare they “will never drink again,” but a hangover memory is short.


There is also the ingrained social comradery and humor associated with the hangover. Search “hangover memes” and find jokes about throwing up on door handles, the awkwardness of waking beside strangers, and wearing sunglasses to open the refrigerator. It should be repulsive, but we laugh because the tales are so outrageous. When else do ordinary people do such abnormal things? And you must admit the movie The Hangover (at least part one) was funny. The long-term consequences of alcohol, however, are not.


When is a Hangover Dangerous?

If an individual is unconscious, can’t be awakened, or shows severe signs or symptoms from heavy drinking, they might have alcohol poisoning — a life-threatening emergency. Call 911 or seek immediate medical care. Signs and symptoms include (Mayo Clinic):

  • Seizures
  • Slow or irregular breathing (less than eight breaths a minute or a gap of more than 10 seconds between breaths)
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Unconsciousness


Avoiding or “Curing” a Hangover

The 19th-century expression “the hair of the dog that bit you” describes having an alcoholic drink the morning after to help avoid or “cure” a hangover. The expression originally indicated a method of treatment for a rabid dog bite by placing hair from the dog on the wound. A drink in the morning might temporarily minimize some hangover discomfort, but it could prolong other hangover symptoms. And it also means you are drinking in the morning: never a good idea and a catalyst for those with substance misuse concerns to begin drinking anew.


The experts agree (and you knew this was coming); the best way to avoid a hangover is by drinking in moderation or choosing not to drink. The NIH says, “There is no magic potion for beating hangovers—and only time can help. A person must wait for the body to finish clearing the toxic byproducts of alcohol metabolism, to rehydrate, to heal irritated tissue, and to restore immune and brain activity to normal. There is no way to speed up the brain’s recovery from alcohol use—drinking coffee, taking a shower, or having an alcoholic beverage the next morning will not cure a hangover.”



after marilyn head shot bio

Marilyn Spiller is a student of the world; she also holds a BS in English from Northern Michigan University. She is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. Marilyn was instrumental in creating and maintaining the Sanford Behavioral Health brand and is notorious for her “red-pen approach” to editing. She is responsible for Sanford’s written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board, JACK Mental Health Advocacy.