A Doctor Explains the Anatomy of a Hangover — Here's Why You're in Pain

If you're contributing to the spike in alcohol sales since staying home (guilty!), you may have had to fight off a hangover or two.

You've also probably noticed through trial and error that there is a lot of misinformation when it comes to hangover prevention.

Even the college cardinal rule of drinking — liquor before beer, in the clear — won't protect you from the painful aftermath of a rowdy Zoom happy hour.

"It is the rate of drinking that is directly related to hangovers," Dr. Nadia Khan, MD, internal medicine at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, admits — not necessarily the combination of alcohol you consume.

Dr. Khan defines this as "binge-drinking" or consuming around four to five drinks in about two hours.

"Drinking more slowly is less likely to cause a bad hangover," Dr. Khan adds.

Instead of strictly monitoring how you're combining alcohol, it could be more useful to note which types of alcohol you're consuming the most.

Dr. Khan explains that darker alcohols (whiskey, cognac, and some tequilas) have higher levels of chemicals called congeners, which are produced during the fermentation process and have been known to worsen hangover symptoms.

Let's unpack another popular drinking theory that holds some weight — dehydration. Now, dehydration is definitely associated with hangovers, but it's not solely responsible for your pain.

"Electrolyte imbalances, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and more recently discovered, the increase in cytokines (inflammation) that occurs after drinking, all contribute to hangover symptoms," Dr. Khan explains.

When mixed with drinking, factors like sleep deprivation, smoking, and certain medications can increase your chances of feeling hungover, too.

And if you're a social drinker that sporadically binges, Dr. Khan notes that you're more susceptible to hangovers than the regular heavy drinker.

Now, let's get proactive about putting a stop to hangovers.

Dr. Khan urges that drinking slowly over a longer period of time, staying hydrated, and eating while consuming alcohol are the most effective ways to prevent a hangover.

There is no foolproof way to dodge the morning spins, headache, and nausea after a night of heavier drinking, so it helps to be prepared for when that inevitably painful wake-up call hits.

Keeping hydrated is key. With your doctor's permission, you could also consider taking an anti-inflammatory medication like an NSAID. Or, ask your internist about prickly pear extract (also known as Opuntia ficus indica), which is believed to lessen hangover symptoms due to its anti-inflammatory effects.

And if those Dr. Khan-approved tips aren't as effective as you hoped, know that it takes time for the body to metabolize the alcohol in your system and clear the inflammation.

If you hate this feeling, try monitoring how much you're drinking and know your limit so you don't have to deal with it at all.

Click here for more health and wellness stories, tips, and news.