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Thursday 17 March 2016

What causes hangovers?

What causes the dreaded hangover? The answer is simple, right? It’s alcohol. But how does alcohol cause hangovers? The answer is less straightforward.

Photograph of badge with writing Hangover On Board and the London Underground logo
Evidence of alcohol dates as far back as 10,000BC. We suspect hangovers do, too.
Image credit: Annie Mole, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Some will say it’s dehydration, others will blame your electrolyte balance, or blood sugar levels, whilst insisting you ingest copious volumes of orange juice. But whilst orange juice might ease hangover symptoms, it doesn’t cure it. In fact, we don’t know of any reliable hangover cure at all - probably because even though the hangover predates the Egyptian pyramids[1], how it comes about remains a mystery.

A major reason for this massive void in our understanding is the fact that almost nobody seems to be researching it. It’s like we don’t care. Whilst the glut of folk remedies tells a different tale (we do care - we don’t want hangovers), some argue that hangovers are better left not understood so that we can’t cure them. Hangovers are an incentive to drink less, a natural mechanism that, if removed, could lead to widespread drunken barbarity with no comeuppance for the perpetrators. On the other hand, it’s important to point out that not all hangovers are equal. Some people don’t even get hangovers (23% - either because they never drink to excess or they’re just very lucky). We don’t know why this is either, but it does challenge the idea that removing hangovers would lead to epidemic alcoholism, or that experiencing a hangover is somehow “fair”.

And this isn’t all we don’t know about alcohol. We don’t know how alcohol causes mood swings, lowers inhibitions and reaction times, or makes us clumsy and bad at driving. We don’t know whether curing a hangover could lessen the damage caused by alcohol - combining making it easier to drink with making it safer - it’s certainly possible, but we can’t know until we know more about hangovers.