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Health Matters: Hangover Woes

Excessive drinking leads to unpleasant symptoms the next day


The symptoms can range from unpleasant to severe: fatigue, headache, increased sensitivity to light and sound, muscle aches, thirst, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. It’s a hangover, and the only proven remedy is time.

A hangover is the body’s response to excessive drinking and is caused in part by dehydration. A hangover typically begins several hours after drinking stops, when the alcohol content in the blood begins to decrease, but the physiology of a hangover is not completely understood.

Jonathan Howland, a School of Public Health professor of social and behavioral sciences, has conducted extensive studies on the effects of hangovers. “We have found definite trends in terms of neurocognitive performance, particularly attention-reaction time,” he says. “This time is slowed the day after moderate to heavy drinking in the absence of any alcohol in the body.”

Certain chemicals found in alcohol, called congeners, may affect the incidence or intensity of a hangover. Alcoholic beverages that contain fewer congeners, such as vodka and gin, are associated with milder hangovers than those with a higher number of congeners, such as red wine and whiskey.

Alcohol affects people differently, depending on factors such as gender and body size. On average, your body can handle a drink an hour, says Beth Grampetro, the health and wellness educator at Student Health Services. One drink is considered to be 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or an ounce and a half of liquor.

The only proven remedy for a hangover is time — time for your body to process the alcohol and become rehydrated. There is, however, one surefire preventive measure you can take: don’t drink to excess.

“A big part of preventing a hangover, and a big part of preventing alcohol poisoning, is keeping track of what you’re drinking and really pacing yourself so you’re not having too much at one time,” Grampetro cautions. “Even if you pace yourself and keep to one drink an hour, if you end up having four drinks in an evening, it could be too much for you.”

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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