This Is What Happens to Your Body During a Hangover

Find out what's in store for you after a night out—and how it could have an impact on your body.

A woman with a hangover on a designed background
Photo: Getty Images / Dima Berlin / Maren Caruso

Hangovers can be a bit unpredictable. Sometimes you can have just one glass of wine and get a terrible headache, while other times you'll wake up feeling fine after drinking your fair share the night before. Hangovers also manifest themselves differently, producing various symptoms depending on the person. We talked to Seattle-based registered dietitian Ginger Hultin, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of ChampagneNutrition®, about hangovers and the impact they can have on our bodies.

What Is a Hangover, Anyway?

It's important to first understand what alcohol does to our body to understand a hangover. We often forget that our bodies actually consider alcohol to be toxic at high doses, and although science doesn't have a complete explanation for why we experience hangover symptoms, Hultin says this is likely the foundation of the problem.

"We've introduced a very irritating substance to the body and it has to process and eliminate it," Hultin says. "Dehydration is part of it, but most evidence points to the toxin acetaldehyde, which is created as the liver metabolizes and tries to excrete alcohol from the body. Due to genetic variations, each person has more or less of the enzyme needed to break this toxin down. The greater the presence of this toxin, the worse the hangover."

Hultin says a hangover can last up to 72 hours, depending on several factors (like how much you drank, your hydration level, your body size and sex). Genetics also play a factor here, so there are plenty of reasons why some people could drink the exact same type and amount of alcohol and experience different symptoms.

Below, you'll find what happens to your body when you're hungover:

You Could Feel Drowsy

Depending on the severity of your hangover, you could be low on energy for the next one to three days. A 2017 study conducted with Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit found alcohol hangovers could cause both daytime sleepiness and lower sleep quality. A hangover can produce a double-whammy of a restless night and feeling extra-tired throughout the next day or more.

You Could Have Trouble Focusing

A 2018 study out of Duke University associated alcohol hangovers with memory and attention deficits, making it pretty difficult to stay productive at work the next day. Pile that with feeling drowsy, and you have a recipe for a *rough* workday or some serious Sunday scaries.

You Could Become Dehydrated

Not only can alcohol be toxic at high doses, but it is also a diuretic, which means it draws water out our body and is dehydrating. Hultin says this can lead to all sorts of symptoms, like headaches, nausea, vomiting and dry mouth. You might also feel a little puffy in certain areas of your body, like your face or fingers. A common rule of thumb is to follow an alcoholic beverage with a glass of water to help prevent feeling dehydrated.

You Might Feel "Off"

Alcohol is a major disruptor to the endocrine system, which is in charge of regulating our hormones and how our body communicates with itself. Booze is technically a depressant, and there is a great deal of research linking alcohol consumption with anxiety, depression and mood swings. (Not to mention, you might be a little embarrassed by last night's shenanigans, which could leave you feeling guilty.)

While you may feel happy at the time of sipping your favorite cocktails, that high can take a sharp turn as the night goes on. Get some fresh air, take an epsom salt bath or do something else you love if you're feeling down the day after drinking.

You Can Experience Symptoms of Inflammation

Just like anything else your body considers to be toxic, consuming alcohol can create an inflammatory response. According to Mayo Clinic, your immune system can trigger certain responses to inflammation that manifest themselves physically—anything from splotchy skin to a loss of interest in your typical activities. Additionally, your kidneys and liver are having to work overtime to flush out all the toxins.

You Could Have Temporary Digestive Problems

Inflammation has a major impact on your microbiome and can mess with the good bacteria in your gut. Drinking too much can cause serious irritation to your intestines, as alcohol irritates your stomach lining and can cause more acids to be released from your stomach. You may just experience light stomach discomfort or you may have severe nausea. If you experience hangovers on a regular basis, you could even start to develop ulcers from the continuous buildup of acid in the intestines.

Besides nausea, hangovers can lead to diarrhea. Between symptoms of dehydration and the fact that alcohol is a diuretic, you may want to cancel your morning brunch plans and focus on resting and hydrating your body.

The Bottom Line

Our current dietary guidelines define moderate drinking as one alcoholic beverage a day for women, and two for men. This should not lead to a hangover for most of us, and in an ideal world we'd all be drinking in moderation (or not at all).

However, wine-filled dinners and nights out with friends happen on occasion, so it's important to listen to your body the day after some serious imbibing. Prioritize water over coffee first thing in the morning to rehydrate the body, let yourself rest a bit and be sure to opt for nutritious meals over classic hangover food.

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