Sure, you were expecting a headache and maybe some vomiting, but why does it feel like you got hit by a tractor trailer?
Actually, there’s a pretty good reason why. “Hangovers are easy to explain because they’re basically a mini withdrawal syndrome,” George Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), tells BuzzFeed Life.
“Any time you take an intoxicant, your brain changes. So your brain adapts to that change, and then when the drug is removed, the opposite reaction occurs. Most of the symptoms of a hangover are the opposite of what you get when you’re intoxicated with alcohol.”
This makes so much sense. Instead of feeling elated, uninhibited, pain-free, and overly confident about your dance skills, you’re now feeling depressed, anxious, achy, and not even totally confident that you can stand up straight.
But obviously, there’s more to a hangover than waking up with a pounding headache and dry mouth. Here are some other things that happen to your body when you’ve had wayyyyyy too much to drink the night before.
1. You hurt like hell, thanks to a brutal combo of inflammation and being able to feel pain again.
You feel like you did CrossFit yesterday and also maybe got punched. The real reason you’re achy and sore today is because of that rebound effect we mentioned. Alcohol is an analgesic, meaning it can dull pain (both physical and emotional). But when it wears off, that pain can come back with a vengeance, says Koob. And even if you didn’t have pain before you started drinking, you might now be feeling the effects of any clumsy injuries you incurred while intoxicated, too. Another factor could be inflammation or the release of pro-inflammatory compounds called cytokines, says Koob.
2. Your heart rate and anxiety levels may skyrocket.
Your heart is pounding so fast that you Google “margarita heart attack?” Here’s why: “Any anxiety symptoms or increase in heart rate we call sympathetic reactions,” says Koob. “Those are due to the fact that when you’re intoxicated, those effects are blocked. So when alcohol is removed, they tend to manifest themselves.” This typically doesn’t happen after just one or two drinks, but if you binge drink, you’re probably familiar with the feeling of waking up at 5 a.m. with your heart racing. “The alcohol has worn off and your brain is now in a high-excitability state.” You know, just what you need when you want to sleep off the hangover as long as possible.
3. The alcohol in your system wreaks havoc on your sleep patterns.
Here’s an unfair fact: Your hangover can actually start before you even wake up, says Koob. That’s why your eyes pop open when the sun comes up and your body refuses to go back to sleep no matter how hard you try. That’s because alcohol disrupts your sleep patterns, and it can actually last a couple of days. So when it’s Sunday night after a weekend of drinking and you’re wondering why you can’t just pass out, this is why.
4. If you can fall asleep, you might have nightmares, thanks to the increase in REM sleep.
This is another one of those strange rebound effects from the alcohol. Since drinking can screw with your sleep and keep you up, it can increase REM sleep when you finally do pass out. And since nightmares are more likely to occur during REM sleep, that explains why you’re having dream after dream about running from that creepy mask in the Saw movies.
5. An endorphin crash can make you feel sad and weepy.
You wake up in a sad funk and start crying when there’s nothing on Netflix. You don’t remember anything devastating happening last night, so why do you feel like your dog just died? “When you feel lousy the next day, it’s kind of like you released all of your endorphins and there’s this deficit state,” says Koob. “I think people fail to realize there’s no free ride in your brain reward system.”
6. If you have an alcohol intolerance, you may be super congested.
You’re suddenly so congested you think you could actually call out sick and mean it. If alcohol brings on a stuffy nose and sinus pain, you might have an alcohol intolerance, which the Mayo Clinic describes as a condition where you’re unable to break down alcohol — or, more specifically, the ingredients in alcohol. It’s often referred to as an alcohol allergy, since the reaction is usually to a specific ingredient in the drink (grains, chemicals, preservatives, etc.), rather than the liquor itself. If you get super congested with your hangover and also experience things like flushing, hives, headache, or worsening of existing asthma, you might want to check with an allergist to see what’s up.
7. Dehydration can give you a serious case of face puffiness.
So puffy. So very, very, puffy. Blame this one on dehydration. “The alcohol in the bloodstream inhibits a hormone that regulates urine production,” says Koob. “In this state, the kidneys excrete dilute urine containing low levels of sodium and other electrolytes, resulting in elevated amounts of sodium in the body.“ As you sober up, you start to take in fluids again, but all that excess sodium in your body can lead to swelling and general puffiness.
8. Your stomach… holy shit… literally.
Nothing can get you out of bed with this hangover — except explosive diarrhea. This can happen for a few reasons, but it’s basically your gut’s response to all that booze. “Large amounts of alcohol can cause disturbances in the intestinal absorption of nutrients and vitamins,” gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan, MD, author of Gutbliss, tells BuzzFeed Life. Drinking can also lead to more bacteria in the small intestine, which can bring on the runs, she says. Of course, it also could just be that four Long Island iced teas followed by cheese fries at 2 a.m. may have upset your stomach.
9. Your brain doesn’t work so good.
You can’t concentrate long enough to write a single text message, and you briefly consider that you forgot how to write altogether. There are a few reasons you’re functioning at a less-than-ideal level today. You used up a lot of dopamine last night, so your brain is kinda playing catch up, explains Koob. Plus, the brain changes we associate with a hangover may mess with cognitive function in your frontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making, executive function, thinking about the future — you know, adult things.
10. You may get suuuuper dizzy.
Walking in a straight line is a struggle, and why is the room spinning? Wait, are you still drunk?! Probably not, but a hangover can keep you dizzy for hours. One reason is orthostatic hypotension, or that faint feeling you get when you stand up too fast, which can happen post-drinking, says Koob. Another possibility is that a reflex that controls balance and feedback may be disrupted by a hangover, or it could be the result of residual effects in your cerebellum (which controls fine motor movement), says Koob. The fix: Don’t make any rapid movements, and get up slooowly.
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