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What Causes a Hangover?

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Young man passed out on couch, clutching beer bottle

Age, weight, food, and how much we drink all contribute to the severity of our hangovers.

Plush Studios / Photodisc / Getty Images

There are a number of factors that play a part in whether or not you will suffer from a hangover after a night of drinking. Many of the causes are obvious and most of us know what our own limitations are. It goes without saying that the one true way to avoid a hangover is to avoid or severely limit the amount alcohol you consume.

  • Drink Water: The ethanol contained in alcoholic beverages has a dehydrating effect which causes headaches, dry mouth and tiredness. This effect can be lessened by drinking plenty of water before and throughout your night of drinking.
  • Effects on Liver: Your liver breaks ethanol down with the aid of enzymes produced by liver cells. These chemical reactions do many things that include impairing the liver's ability to supply glucose to tissues, in particular to the brain. Glucose is responsible for the brain's energy and the lack thereof results in fatigue, weakness, moodiness and decreased attention.
  • Congeners: Congeners are the by-products of the process of alcohol fermentation and exaggerate the symptoms of a hangover. The more congeners consumed, the worse a hangover is likely to be. Dark spirits such as brandy, whiskey, and red wine contain more congeners than lighter spirits like vodka and white wine. Likewise, cheaper spirits have had fewer of these impurities removed through filtration and are more likely to cause a hangover, so that cheap vodka may actually affect you more than a high-end whiskey.
  • Sweet Drinks: Some people believe the sugar in sweeter cocktails contributes to the severity of hangovers. There may be something to this, though it is likely that sweeter drinks tend to mask the alcohol's flavors, cause our taste buds to need more, and inadvertently encourage us to drink more.
  • Smoking: Smokers, and even some non-smokers, tend to smoke more when they are drinking and this can lead to nicotine poisoning which will also worsen hangovers.
  • Genetics: Some people are genetically lucky when it comes to hangovers and rarely, if ever, suffer the effects.
  • Weight is a Factor: The less one weighs the more that person will feel the effects and the after effects of alcohol at lower amounts.
  • Age: The older you are, the more likely you are to have a severe hangover. This is usually not a factor because we tend to take it a little easier as we learn from the mistakes of our younger years, but this is not always the case and you have been warned.
  • Is it in Your Head?: There is something to be said about psychosomatic effects. If you think you will get a hangover, you probably will get one. Look on the bright side and save yourself. It's no guarantee, but it may help.
  • Take it Easy: Finally, the more you drink or the more you guzzle in a short time span, the worse your hangover will be.

How do I know if I have a hangover?
How do I avoid a hangover?
How do I cure a hangover?
The Six Stages of Hangovers

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