One Too Many?

Have you ever asked yourself why your hangovers always seem so much worse than your friends?

Written by: Paula Doust Alba

Art by: Yang Xin


You know that Sunday morning feeling: mouth like the Sahara desert, stomach like a tumble dryer, and a head that feels like it’s being drilled into. There’s no mystery to it… it’s a hangover! Have you ever wondered, however, why boozing up makes you feel this way? Have you ever asked yourself why your hangovers always seem so much worse than your friends’? Or even (if you’re lucky enough) why you never seem to get hungover?

The answer may be in your DNA (or rather, in the enzymes coded by it). The science behind a hangover is not yet certain; in fact there are many theories. One such hypothesis, which has evidence to support it, states that acetaldehyde is the molecule responsible for our dreaded hangovers.

Everyone’s liver goes through the same process of metabolising alcohol. Once you down that Old Speckled Hen (or another choice of poison), the alcohol that enters your system meets the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme (ADH). This enzyme will break down the alcohol and create acetaldehyde, our worst enemy. Acetaldehyde is the wonderful molecule responsible for vomiting, headaches, rapid heartbeat and flushing. Once created, acetaldehyde will come into contact with our best friend and saviour, the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Aldehyde dehydrogenase will work relentlessly to break down this devil molecule, with the help of glutathione. The wonder pair work quickly, making sure that acetaldehyde is not left long enough in the system to cause any damage tomorrow morning.

This system works fantastically: until you’ve had one too many that is. When we drink more than our body is prepared for, our enzymes become saturated and acetaldehyde builds up in our body without being transformed into acetate. It will be in our system for longer, and will gradually contribute to our hangover.

There are multiple factors that will influence the severity of your ‘24 hour flu’. One of these factors is your biological sex. As a general rule, women transform ethanol into acetaldehyde at a quicker rate, exposing the liver to higher levels of this molecule, and making it harder for females to escape that brutal morning after! If you’re of East Asian descent you may also have a rougher time fighting a hangover. A substantial amount of people who originate from this region have mutated genes that code for alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase. This produces isozymes (different enzyme variants) for ADH and ALDH. The ALDH isozyme is often found in its inactive form, meaning that it is less effective in breaking down acetaldehyde than the isozyme prevalent in the Western world. This means that you’re unlucky enough to build up large amounts of acetaldehyde in the system, but find it harder to break it down into acetic acid.  Therefore, this molecule has a greater effect on the individual, producing worse symptoms.

It’s not just the amount of drinks you consume that can contribute to your hangover, but the type of alcohol too. Numerous studies, some dating back to 1970, have shown that drinks with a larger amount of congeners (chemicals produced during fermentation), like red wine, whiskey and bourbon, produce more intense hangovers than drinks with a smaller amount of these chemicals, such as clear liquors.

If you read this article in the hope of finding a miraculous solution to hangovers, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. There are no foolproof ways to prevent hangovers – except for (naturally) practicing alcohol abstinence. However there are things that can be done to minimise your suffering. The first tip is to eat a heavy meal before the drinking begins. Having food in your stomach, especially fatty food, will slow down the process of alcohol absorption, giving the liver more time to produce glutathione and  allowing for a more efficient acetaldehyde breakdown. The same goes for drinking quickly… don’t do it! Savour your drinks and sober-you will thank you for it.

You can also act against the symptoms of a hangover. Drink water to avoid feeling dehydrated and if you’re feeling especially hungover, take an anti-inflammatory pill (Ibuprofen for example). Excessive alcohol consumption can trigger a release of cytokines, the molecules responsible for inflammation – a process that can lead to muscle ache, fatigue, headaches, nausea, memory loss and even irritation.

Knowing how hangovers work won’t help us prevent them. But next time you’re in bed, reaching for that Ibuprofen and waiting for your Deliveroo order, just take comfort in knowing that without aldehyde dehydrogenase and glutathione, you would be even worse off .

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