We’ve all been there. A night of fun contains a drink (or a few drinks) too many, and the following morning brings a horrible cocktail of headaches, nausea and a general feeling of exhaustion. The hangover may be a badge of honor to younger people — particularly in college or university — but after a while, they just become painful. And depending on the severity, they can sometimes be unbearable.
To avoid all this discomfort, you’ve likely developed several preventative measures to keep yourself from feeling the nasty side effects of too much alcohol. Common practices include:
- Knowing your “limit” of how many drinks you can handle
- Drinking one glass of water between each drink
- Grabbing a sports drink before heading to bed
- Eating salty or fatty foods for dinner before the drinking begins
It’s not a coincidence that most of these countermeasures relate to staying hydrated. Alcohol is a diuretic, which, when consumed in excess can quickly make you dehydrated. “Symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration include thirst, weakness, dryness of mucous membranes, dizziness, and lightheadedness — all commonly observed during a hangover,” notes a study published in Alcohol Health & Research World.
It’s important to note that many scientists agree that dehydration is not the only cause for a hangover. Instead, the research behind hangovers is actually quite complex, with several explanations for what causes each symptom.
However, fluid levels do play a role, and as we’ve noted over and over on our blog, hydration involves a combination of both water and electrolytes. Key salts — including sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium — are also lost during dehydration. Therefore, as is the case in race nutrition, electrolytes are an important part of the hydration — and thus hangover-remediation — process.
Hangover symptoms and possible causes:
At the end of the day, alcohol is a poison, and a hangover is the result of its negative effects on the body. Some of these symptoms are the direct result of alcohol’s disrupting cell processes (nausea), while others are more indirect (dizziness, fatigue, headache) and could be caused by dehydration. Below are the most common symptoms of a hangover, along with what scientists believe are their causes:
Headache: As is the case for most hangover symptoms, there is no one agreed-upon cause for headaches after a night of drinking. Most researchers do not believe that dehydration is the sole cause, although low fluid levels in the body likely contribute. One explanation is that alcohol alters levels of several hormones, including histamine, serotonin, and prostaglandins, all of which contribute to headaches (Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 1983). Other researchers believe that alcohol causes your blood vessels to dilate (the opposite effect of caffeine, which causes your vessels to constrict), and this process contributes to a headache.
Dizziness and Fatigue: A common explanation for the extreme fatigue associated with a hangover is lack of sleep. Alcohol impairs sleep function, meaning you will not sleep as deeply as you normally would without alcohol in your system. Additionally, you are likely to go to bed much later than normal after a night of drinking, which alters your circadian rhythm. In 1995, researchers from the University of Oklahoma compared the fatigue caused by a hangover to the fatigue caused by jet lag, and they concluded both were the result of a disrupted circadian rhythm. Dehydration could also contribute to the fatigue, as well as the body’s inflammatory response to alcohol. Also, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol consumption can lead to low blood sugar levels, which are often associated with muscle fatigue.
Nausea: More than anything else, alcohol adversely affects the cells in the intestinal system, causing an inflammatory response (New England Journal of Medicine). Additionally, when processing alcohol, the body produces a substance called acetaldehyde, which can cause flushing, irritability, and — you guessed it — stomach distress. This inflammation of the stomach lining leads to the nausea commonly associated with hangovers.
Anxiety: At all times, the body is trying to maintain a state of “normality” and balance. Thus, when you consume a depressant, such as alcohol, the central nervous system upregulates a certain neurotransmitter, known as glutamate, that excites or increases cell activity. A 1995 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that levels of glutamate are increased after alcohol consumption — even after the body is finished processing alcohol out of the bloodstream. In other words, for several hours after you finish drinking, your body is in “overdrive,” due to the stimulating effects of glutamate that is not counterbalanced by the depressant nature of alcohol.
The role of electrolytes in hangover symptoms:
Some organizations, such as the Alcohol Hangover Research Group, argue that electrolytes have no role at all. The group points to research (Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 2010) that found that electrolyte levels did not significantly correlate with the severity of a hangover. This study reached the same conclusion regarding several hormones, blood-glucose levels and ketone bodies — there is no significant relationship between these biological markers and hangover severity.
However, other researchers may disagree.
Study 1: Fruit can reduce the severity of a hangover: In 1976, researchers found that consumption of fruits, fruit juices, or other fructose-containing foods is reported to decrease hangover intensity (Seppala et al.). This result could be entirely related to the sugar content in most fruit (which helps quickly restore low blood sugar levels); however, fruit is also a great source of several electrolytes, most notably potassium.
Potassium could play an important role in hangover recovery because of the way the body regulates fluid levels after alcohol consumption. One of the effects of alcohol is lower levels of antidiuretic hormone (ADH), which prompts the body to release water through urination. As the alcohol is processed, the body increases ADH levels to compensate for the previous reduction, which causes fluid retention, higher blood pressure and swelling in the hands and feet. Also during this period, the kidneys release a hormone called aldosterone, which ultimately leads to sodium retention and potassium loss. This again increases blood pressure, and as one health blogger notes, “your cardiovascular system goes into electrolyte roller-coaster hyperdrive to try and regain fluids.”
This lopsided sodium-to-potassium ratio (especially when combined with low fluid levels in the body due to extensive urination) can cause serious side effects, including headaches, fatigue and dizziness … sound familiar?
Study 2: Electrolyte-enhanced beer can help prevent a hangover: Additionally, in a study out of the Griffith University Health Institute, researchers found they could reduce the severity of a hangover in patients when they added electrolytes and reduced the alcohol content of beer.
Luckily, you don’t need fancy electrolyte-induced beer to obtain the same results. By drinking more water during your night out and consuming a source of electrolytes before bed, you can effectively reach a similar outcome.
Where we come in:
As you probably know, SaltStick Caps contain a broad spectrum of electrolytes, including potassium, calcium and magnesium. We’re proud to support a long list of endurance athletes who compete in the heat and humidity (and the cold!) and who need to replace electrolytes lost through sweat.
However, SaltStick Caps can be used for more than just race nutrition. We’ve already blogged about how our product can help with certain medical conditions (such as POTS and Cystic Fibrosis), as well as things like sleeplessness or even stress. Dealing with hangovers is just one more beneficial use of the product.
Use it today! From personal experience, we make sure to consume two SaltStick Capsules and a glass of water after a night of drinking, and we’ve noticed the hangover symptoms are all but gone the next day.
So whether your weekend involves a long bike ride or a long night of drinking, make sure you’ve got some SaltStick Caps on hand and you’ll be bouncing back in no time.
Important Note: The above should not be construed as medical advice. Contact your physician before starting any exercise program or if you are taking any medication. Individuals with high blood pressure should also consult their physician prior to taking an electrolyte supplement. Overdose of electrolytes is possible, with symptoms such as vomiting and feeling ill, and care should be taken not to overdose on any electrolyte supplement.