The specific scientific cause of a hangover is unknown, but certain people are more prone to having one than others. (BRIDGET DOWNES / THE STATESMAN)

The specific scientific cause of a hangover is unknown, but certain people are more prone to having one than others. (BRIDGET DOWNES / THE STATESMAN)


by Mallory Locklear and Ruchi Shah

Ruchi Shah, a sophomore biology major, and Mallory Locklear, a graduate student at Stony Brook’s department of neurobiology and behavior, take a look at science-related issues.

Hangovers, called veisalgia by those in the medical field, are a dreaded after effect of alcohol consumption and a familiar experience for many college students. Characterized by symptoms including headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, stomach problems, drowsiness, sweating and cognitive impairment, a hangover is certainly not a fun ordeal. Despite its prevalence, the cause of a hangover is still an enigma to scientists.

While it is widely believed that alcohol consumption results in a hangover due to dehydration, researchers at Utrecht Institute for Pharmaceutical Sciences found there is “no correlation between high levels of hormones associated with dehydration and the severity of a hangover.”

Although not the main cause, dehydration is still a side effect because alcohol acts as a diuretic in the body.

Imagine a balance with one side representing what stays in the body and the other representing what leaves. Normally, both sides have a fixed ration of compounds with respect to each other. But when you eat too many salty foods, the ratio changes and more water is retained to maintain the initial ratio. The messenger that tells your body to hold onto water is called anti-diuretic hormone or ADH.

Alcohol does not let this messenger work, increasing the amount of urine production and the amount of water the body loses. While it is not a cure, many scientists believe drinking extra water while consuming alcohol will help mitigate hangover symptoms.

The current theory behind hangovers involves the outcome of the body processing alcohol. Just as food molecules are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces that the body can use, alcohol is broken down so it can be excreted. As alcohol is being converted, the first product produced is acetaldehyde, which is 10 to 30 times more toxic than alcohol. Recent studies suggest that it is the buildup of this byproduct that results in symptoms like sweating, skin flushing, nausea and vomiting.

One of the more unfortunate side effects of drinking too much is known as “the spins” and it has a very reasonable scientific explanation.

When you turn your head, a series of events happen to let your brain know that your head has moved.

Within your inner ear are three small tubes called the semicircular canals, which are filled with a liquid called endolymph. The three canals correspond to the three directions in space in which the head can move.

When you turn your head, all of the solid bits inside of your head, such as the canals, move together, but the liquid in the canals does not move in the same way. To observe this effect, place a cup of your beverage of choice on a table. Now with the cup on the table, slowly push it away from you. What you will see is that while the cup is being pushed, your drink does not seem to be doing much, but when you stop pushing, your drink stops at a slight delay and sloshes up against the side of the cup.

The endolymph behaves the same way. When the head is stationary, so is the liquid.  When the head turns, however, the canals move along with it, but the endolymph is a little slower to pick up on the movement and lags behind. Since the canals and all of the more solid items within it are moving but the endolymph is slightly behind, it causes some friction between the two, and the endolymph pushes against the more solid items in the ear canals.

These items include the cupula, a gelatinous structure attached to tiny hair cells. When the endolymph pushes against it, the cupula causes the hair cells to bend. Every time they bend, they send a signal to the brain letting it know that the head is moving.

Under normal circumstances, the endolymph, cupula and hair cells are in perfect balance, such that when the head is not moving, there is no friction between them.

However, when you have consumed so much alcohol that it starts to seep into the endolymph, this balance is disrupted. This is because when alcohol finds its way into the endolymph, it changes the endolymph’s density, making it a thinner liquid than usual.

This thinner liquid is now not dense enough to support the cupula and hair cells in the ear canals when the head is not moving. So whereas usually the endolymph is able to keep the cupula and hair cells positioned upright, the thin endolymph cannot and the hair cells fall over a little bit.

If you have ever tried to make fruit-filled Jell-O, you know something about the importance of density. If you mix up a package of Jell-O, it is a very watery liquid at first. You have to wait until the Jell-O thickens a little bit before you put the fruit in, otherwise the fruit just falls to the bottom.

As the hair cells fall over, they send false signals to the brain that the head is moving. This is why it seems like the room is spinning when enough alcohol has been imbibed. The hair cells are constantly telling the brain that the head is moving, when it is not.

Most agree that there is not a cure for the spins and the best way to prevent them is by not drinking too much. However, in his blog “Accidental Scientist,” Simon Cooke, a software engineer who gained a small following around his posts on “hangover cures,” writes that there may be a way to trick the system.

Cooke claims that if you send a large enough signal, the brain cannot be confused as to whether the head is moving or not. He proposes that if you position your head at a large enough angle to the neck, the “spinning” signal will be overridden.

As stated in his blog, Cooke advises to, “position yourself over the arm of the couch, with your head hanging downwards.”

So, hopefully, you will avoid the spins altogether, but if you do find the room spinning, give this a try.

While the scientific cause behind hangovers may not be completely understood, it is easily observable that certain populations are more prone to hangovers. Genetic differences may be the culprit.

Individuals prone to hangovers tend to have an excess of enzymes that convert alcohol to the first byproduct—the toxic acetaldehyde. However, the enzymes converting the toxic compound to a less toxic byproduct works slower than in a normal person. Therefore, certain people are more prone to hangovers because they have different enzyme amounts. This enzyme imbalance, a result of genetic differences, leads to an even greater buildup of acetaldehyde, and ultimately to more severe hangover symptoms.