from the Under-the-Table dept.
Olga Khazan writes at The Atlantic that hangover research is a bit of a neglected field, but there's a lot hangovers can tell us about our brains, our guts, and the epidemiology of alcoholism. According to researcher Richard Stephens from a health standpoint everyone tends to think that hangovers are a good thing because it stops you from drinking too much, like the natural brake on drinking. And yet, a number of studies have actually shown the opposite. "If hangover is a natural brake on drinking, then alcoholics should get the least hangovers of anyone that the reason they are alcoholic is that they don't have that natural brake on drinking," says Stevens who has been studying hangovers for ten years. "But actually a number of studies in the US have actually shown the opposite, that alcoholics get the most severe hangovers, even when you control for the amount of alcohol consumed. And so it seems like it's a more complex relationship between being at risk of alcoholism and hangovers"
Stevens also says that there's is a biological basis for "the hair of the dog". When you drink alcohol, there's an enzyme in the body that breaks down the ethanol in alcohol into metabolites after you've had a drink of alcohol and felt drunk, once you start to feel sober again, that's because your body has metabolized the ethanol. But once the ethanol has been metabolized, there are usually other alcohols in smaller quantities in alcoholic beverages. One such compound is methanol, and when the body metabolizes methanol, it metabolizes it into toxins formaldehyde and formic acid. And those make you feel ill, sort of poison you a little bit. What's interesting though is that the enzymes in your body that break down alcohols would prefer to break down ethanol first and methanol second. "It means that when you're in a hangover phase, if you drink more alcohol you'll actually stop your body from breaking down methanol and the things that are making you feel ill, and instead go back to working on the ethanol and leave the methanol intact."
Finally, a number of studies show that the severity of hangovers declines with age, a finding that cannot be explained by the usual amount of alcohol consumption, frequency of binge drinking, or the proportion of alcohol consumed with meals. "Hangovers predominantly affect younger, less experienced drinkers," says Stephens. "Younger drinkers in their late teens and 20s are several times more likely to get a hangover than older, more experienced drinkers. In light of links between hangover and risk of alcoholism, younger drinkers should beware."