The Morning After

While the body attempts to quickly metabolize the alcohol as soon as it enters the bloodstream, there is not much that can be done to speed up the passing of alcohol through the body. Depending on how much alcohol you have had to drink, how quickly you drank it, how much food was in your stomach, and how much you weigh, the process of becoming sober (when all alcohol has passed out of your body) takes time.

Many of the popular myths about "sobering someone up" are just that—myths. Drinking black coffee or taking a cold shower may make you feel more awake, but you will still have the same amount of alcohol in your system. And once your body has eliminated all of the alcohol from your system, you may then experience one of alcohol's most unpleasant side effects: a hangover.

A hangover is your body's final response to too much alcohol. There are many symptoms, and none of them is pleasant: headache, nausea, thirst, depression, anxiety, fatigue, irritability, dry mouth, and extreme sensitivity to sounds and light.

Why does your body react this way? In some cases, these are symptoms of dehydration (loss or reduction of fluids in the body). It seems ironic that drinking too much can cause you to become dehydrated, but it traces back to what we've learned about the functioning of the kidneys. When alcohol triggers the kidneys to produce increasing amounts of urine, more fluid is carried out of the body, causing some of the symptoms of mild dehydration—dry mouth and a headache. A headache can also be caused when alcohol relaxes and enlarges the cranial vessels in the head.

What about fatigue and weakness? After much alcohol is consumed, the liver sets to work metabolizing the alcohol. The molecules that help the liver to metabolize the alcohol normally are processing other toxic materials, such as lactic acid. But as we have learned, when alcohol comes into the bloodstream, the liver focuses on it, allowing other dangerous toxins to begin to build up. A buildup of lactic acid in your muscles can make you feel exhausted and shaky.

The upset stomach and nausea that come with a hangover are most often caused by the increased amounts of acid your stomach has produced, which was triggered by alcohol. If you have already vomited, your stomach will be empty and even more acidic, making your stomach feel even queasier.

Finally, a kind of "rebound effect" is generally thought to contribute to the extreme sensitivity to light and sound that a hangover may cause. Your body is attempting to get back to normal. A lot of alcohol has reduced your body's sensitivity to different sources of stimulation, including light and sound. As the body attempts to bounce back to a normal state, you may feel even more sensitive to noises and sunlight.

This 22-year-old man, known to the San Francisco street community as "Shwill," claims to have started drinking with his mother as a young boy. Studies have suggested that adolescent drinkers are more vulnerable to the deleterious health effects of alcohol than adult drinkers.


There is one last element of alcohol's impact on your body that is important to remember, and that is the way that alcohol can interact with drugs and medications. Alcohol is a drug, and, if you are taking prescription, over-the-counter medications or any other drug, alcohol can drastically change the way the drug affects your body. In some cases, it can interfere with the drug; in other cases, it can greatly increase its effects.

One example is a common over-the-counter medication: antihistamines, which are used to treat colds or allergies. These types of medications can make you feel drowsy. When alcohol is added, the sleep-inducing aspect of the medication is greatly magnified.

The combination of alcohol and anti-anxiety medication or sleeping medication—drugs such as Valium (diazepam) — can prove fatal. Such a combination severely depresses the central nervous system. Alcohol can dramatically increase the effects of many other drugs, causing their effect to be magnified many times.

Booze Basher

Booze Basher

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