James Everitt blogs about The Chemistry of a Hangover

The Chemistry of a hangover


What is a hangover? It is the illness or sickness related to the consumption of excess alcohol characterised by aching everywhere, general illness and of course the famous headache. Most of these symptoms are the result of the impaired kidney function that the consumption of alcohol leads to.

Our kidneys work in a negative feedback loop meaning that without the production of any regulatory hormones all the water and salts in our blood would end up in our urine. Because alcohol(ethanol) is such a small molecule in comparison to the hormones that are produced for this regulation it can permeate through almost every membrane in the human body. This means it can disrupt the function of the entire endocrine system by diffusing into the glands. It is this system that regulates the human bodies function and provides vital communication throughout the body.

Anti-diuretic hormone is the main hormone in the measurement for the reabsorption of water and salts into the blood and the less the body produces the more of those substances end up in urine which is where the massive number of toilet visits during a night outcome from. The lack in salts is what cause the muscle aches and seemingly irrational tiredness. This mass release of fluids is also what causes the characteristic ‘morning after the night before’ headache and why water is often the best cure.

Moreover, alcoholic drinks are almost all plant-based and this means they contain a lot of sugar so when a large amount in drank it can induce hyperglycaemia. This cause the pancreas to release a lot of insulin to try and lower the blood sugar this can lead to hypoglycaemia is the body overacts. This can be even more of an issue for diabetics as they can’t lower their blood sugar and can go into shock or cardiac arrest while drinking.

Drinking can also affect the adrenal glands which release hormones that relieve stress and can limit the production of adrenalin reducing the fight or flight response. The stress-relieving hormones are pivotal for bodily function and sleep patterns as they allow the body to relax before and during sleep leading to the broken sleep that comes after a night out.

Another major effect of heavy drinking is how it changes the parathyroid (a collection of glands surrounding the thyroid gland) these release hormones to stimulate calcium absorption in the intestine and a lack of these hormones can lead to terrible bone structure and perhaps even osteoporosis.
Finally, the effect than men find most worrying is when it enters the testes. Heavy drinking can cause loss of the cells that produce testosterone which decreases sperm count and decreased libido. For women the effect of alcohol on the ovaries can cause irregularities in the menstrual cycle with the disruption of both progesterone and oestrogen production.

For many of these issues they are often temporary and just cause a bad night’s sleep and a terrible morning. But the hangover can be an extensive illness that causes organ damage and life-changing disabilities. Thankfully this is only at high dosages and is unlikely to affect even the wildest of students.

James Everitt, Year 12.