My favorite part about being sober is the hangover free morning. Especially when I am with people who were drunk the night before. On vacation for example: I wake like St. Francis of Assisi, birds tweeting on my windowsill; a memory so clear and shameless I want to talk about it; and a strong desire to have a healthy breakfast or a cup of coffee and go for a long walk. No hangover.
The drinkers however, rise like zombies: holding coffee cups to their foreheads; digging in messy purses for painkillers and stomach settlers; piecing the previous evening’s events together with old glue and a collective memory. They groan like war veterans. They say silly things like, “I was run over by a bus,” and all the other drinkers agree, chuckling affably. No one wants to go for a walk – they want greasy, spicy food and hair of the hound. They have hangovers.
Now that I am almost three years sober, the concept of a hangover is so foreign, I can’t even remember how it felt. Just that it was bad …
During my last year as a drinker, I experienced regular waves of nausea and episodes where I felt so light headed and dizzy I had to sit down. It was like I had a continuous hangover, but I still drank a couple bottles of wine a day and the vicious cycle was unbroken. In fact, a slug of wine made me feel slightly better (studies show alcohol acts on chemicals in the brain to increase pleasure and the “hair of the dog” increases activity on neurotransmitter systems that have a positive effect).
What Is a Hangover?
A hangover is the result of a buildup of the ugly sounding, toxic compound acetaldehyde. When you get drunk, enzymes in your liver break alcohol down into acetaldehyde, which is in turn broken down into acetate. Acetate is relatively harmless, but acetaldehyde is not – it causes all those horrible symptoms that make the morning after so, well, horrible.
The body tries to convert acetaldehyde to acetate efficiently, but when you drink quickly and a lot, the liver is overworked and struggles to produce enough enzymes to break down the toxins. So the chemical that causes the nausea and cold sweats, sits around doing damage to your insides longer than it’s supposed to.
Alcohol also irritates the cells in your stomach lining. This is designed to protect: a MAYDAY alarm that tells you to stop, but if you ignore (or mask) the warnings with more liquor, it causes the gastrointestinal mess you experience in the morning.
There Are Other Reasons You Feel so Horrible with a Hangover:
- You are dehydrated – alcohol makes you urinate more
- Your immune system is sending out an SOS
- Your blood sugar is falling
- Blood vessels dilate – the reason for your excruciating headache
- Too much alcohol disrupts sleep
- Congeners are substances produced during fermentation and contribute to the symptoms of a hangover.
Women tend to get worse hangovers than men, because they have less water in their bodies and typically weigh less. Hangovers get more intense with age because the body processes are less efficient.
Why in the World Isn’t a Hangover a Deterrent to Over-drinking?
Damaris J. Rohsenow, a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University says, “People who drink heavily generally experience pleasurable effects while drinking, and that is what drives the decision to drink heavily again. The pain of hangover is temporary, and may be considered a nuisance rather than an important negative consequence.” So, even when drinkers are suffering badly from the effects of too much booze, it doesn’t seem to affect their conscious, drinking motivation long term.
Have you noticed that people with hangovers are funny? They become great raconteurs, like Tom Waits telling gravelly voiced stories of waking in strange climes – poets with just the right degree of regret… It’s like a club. They joke about the fact they threw-up on their door handles and slept with someone who’s name they didn’t know. It should be repulsive, but we laugh because the tales are so outrageous. When else do normal people do such abnormal things? And you have to admit the movie The Hangover (at least part one) was hilarious.
When you think about it, as grisly as they are, hangovers are about the least damaging result of alcoholism… Be careful out there, or if you’re sober like me, cherish your wellbeing, be glad the joke is not on you and GLOAT.