With the holiday season well underway and New Year’s Eve approaching, you might find yourself drinking more alcohol than usual. So what actually happens to our body as we drink alcohol and wake up with a hangover?
What about memory blackouts and “hangxiety”, when you can’t remember what happened the night before or wake up with an awful feeling of anxiety?
Let’s look at what the science says – and bust some long-standing myths.
When you drink alcohol it goes into the stomach and passes into the small intestine where it’s quickly absorbed into the bloodstream.
If you have eaten something, it slows the absorption of alcohol so you don’t get drunk so quickly. That’s why it’s a good idea to eat before and during drinking.
It takes your body about an hour to metabolise 10g, or one standard drink, of alcohol.
(There are calculators that help you estimate your blood alcohol level but everybody breaks down alcohol at a different rate. So these calculators should only be used as a guide.)
What causes memory blackouts?
We all have that friend who has woken up after a big night out and not been able to remember half the night. That’s a “blackout”.
It’s different to “passing out” – you’re still conscious and able to carry out conversation, you just can’t remember it later.
The more alcohol you drink and the faster you drink it, the more likely you are to experience blackouts.
Once alcohol in your blood reaches a certain level, your brain simply stops forming new memories. If you think of your brain like a filing cabinet, files are going straight to the bin, so when you later try to look for them they are lost.
How do I sober up?
If you’ve had too much, there’s no way to sober up quickly. The only thing that can sober you up is time, so that the alcohol can be eliminated from your body.
The caffeine in coffee may make you feel more awake, but it doesn’t help break down alcohol. You will be just as intoxicated and impaired, even if you feel a little less drunk.
The same goes for cold showers, exercise, sweating it out, drinking water, and getting fresh air. These things might help you feel more alert, but they have no impact on your blood alcohol concentration or on the effects of alcohol.
What causes hangovers?
Researchers haven’t identified one single cause of hangovers, but there are a few possible culprits.
Alcohol is a diuretic, so it makes you urinate more often, which can lead to dehydration. This is especially the case if you’re in a hot, sweaty venue or dancing a lot. Dehydration can make you feel dizzy, sleepy and lethargic.