Friday, November 15, 2013

Anatomy of a Hangover

Howdy from the hills of North Carolina, where I’ve escaped for a week of isolation among the lush beauty of the Smoky Mountains. Dense clouds are skirting their peaks and a grey sky is spitting snow, so I’ve settled before the fire to warm my cold-intolerant blood.
I’ve been coming here for years. The topography provides dramatic contrast to the flatness of Florida and it’s nice to witness the change of seasons. The week is usually spent indulging in two of my favorites: gin and bacon (if only they made bacon-flavored gin… or gin-flavored bacon!).

I’ve been a gin drinker since my early years on the fire department. In fact, it was a fellow firefighter who introduced me to that magical libation. Gin is not intended for the novice. It creates a blissful burn as it goes down, akin to swallowing an ecstasy-laced razorblade, and the effects are intense and immediate. Fortunately, following a long apprenticeship, I am now a proficient consumer. I know just when to cut myself off before the inevitable penalty sets in: the hangover.
We’ve all been there. The hammering head, the nausea, the shaking, the thirst… And although you can take meds to minimize the symptoms, you simply have to wait it out. It’s a slow form of punishment that sets its own pace.

So let’s examine just how alcohol ushers in this suite of symptoms and the next time you reach for that fourth or fifth cocktail, you might just take heed.
Although alcohol is technically a depressant, the initial effect is a blissful lightheadedness. Alcohol’s effects are based on several factors – what you’re drinking, your body size, how much you’ve had to eat, and how fast you’re drinking. A few quick shots on an empty stomach can produce intoxication in no time, especially for individuals unused to heavy consumption (aka, "lightweights").

As you drink, the alcohol enters your stomach where it is absorbed by the bloodstream and circulated throughout the body. Because drinking lowers your inhibitions, you tend to disregard the warning signs and keep on drinking. It’s a vicious cycle and before you know it, you’re smashed.
Enter Mr. Hangover.
Alcohol wreaks havoc on your body. Even when you manage to make it home and into bed, the fun has just begun, for here come the spins. Those miserable bed spins are caused by the alcohol affecting the fluid of your inner ear. The disruption sends signals to the brain, telling it the body is moving, when in reality, you’re simply hanging on for dear life, trying not to hurl. Word of warning: the spins are even worse if you add weed to the mix.  

As you’re busy spinning, the alcohol is toying with other bodily components. Urine output increases, which can lead to dehydration (dizziness, thirst, and lightheadedness). Your stomach lining becomes irritated, which contributes to nausea and vomiting. Blood vessels expand, causing your head to throb. And blood sugar can drop, which brings on the shakes.
On a broader scale, alcohol can trigger an inflammatory response, which your body combats via the immune system. The agents released by your immune system can cause a decrease in appetite, loss of memory, and an inability to concentrate. Alcohol also affects quality of sleep, which can intensify each of these symptoms, leaving you cranky and fatigued.

With all these ill effects, why do we continue to drink?? 

Because it’s so damn fun. Humans have been consuming alcohol for therapeutic, ceremonial, and recreational purposes for thousands of years. Evidence for alcohol dates back over nine thousand years in China’s Henan Province, where folks enjoyed a “wine-and-beer-like beverage” made from fermented grapes, rice, honey, and hawthorn fruit. Using residue analysis from pottery fragments, modern concoctors were able to recreate this brew, which went on to win a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2009. 
Science is awesome!
And the Chinese weren’t the only ones raising a glass (or vessel, I should say, since glass wasn’t invented until the Bronze Age). Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Turks, and Mayans were also imbibing. And wherever there has been drinking, there has been overdrinking.

So the next time you overindulge, picture our ancient brethren in the same situation, for as long as there’s been alcohol, hangovers have lurked just around the corner.

Drink wisely and stay safe! Next week I’ll be writing from the great city of Chicago, where hundreds of fellow nerds and I will be gathering for the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting.
I’ll be sure to pack my flask…
Here's a great read on the history of drinking.