5/28/08 - hangovers

In today's excerpt - hangovers:

"A hangover peaks when alcohol that has been poured into the body is finally eliminated from it -- that is, when the blood-alcohol level returns to zero. The toxin is now gone, but the damage it has done is not. By fairly common consent, a hangover will involve some combination of headache, upset stomach, thirst, food aversion, nausea, diarrhea, tremulousness, fatigue, and a general feeling of wretchedness. Scientists haven't yet found all the reasons for this network of woes, but they have proposed various causes.

"One is withdrawal, which would bring on the tremors and also sweating. A second factor may be dehydration. Alcohol interferes with the secretion of the hormone that inhibits urination. Hence the heavy traffic to the rest rooms at bars and parties. The resulting dehydration seems to trigger the thirst and lethargy. While that is going on, the alcohol may also be inducing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which converts into light-headedness and muscle weakness, the feeling that one's bones have turned to jello. Meanwhile, the body, to break down the alcohol, is releasing chemicals that may be more toxic than alcohol itself; these would result in nausea and other symptoms. Finally, the alcohol has produced inflammation, which in turn causes the white blood cells to flood the bloodstream with molecules called cytokines.

"Apparently, cytokines are the source of the aches and pains and lethargy that when our bodies are attacked by a flu virus -- and likewise, perhaps, by alcohol -- encourage us to stay in bed rather than go to work, thereby freeing up the body's energy for use by the white cells in combating the invader. In a series of experiments, mice that were given a cytokine inducer underwent dramatic changes. Adult males wouldn't socialize with young males new to their cage. Mothers displayed 'impaired nest-building.' ...

"But hangover symptoms are not just physical; they are cognitive as well. People with hangovers show delayed reaction times and difficulties with attention, concentration, and visual-spatial perception. A group of airplane pilots given simulated flight tests after a night's drinking put in substandard performances. Similarly, automobile drivers, the morning after get low marks on simulated road tests. Needless to say, this is a hazard, and not just for those at the wheel. There are laws against drunk driving, but not against driving with a hangover. ...

"Some words for hangover, like ours, refer prosaically to the cause: the Egyptians say they are 'still drunk', the Japanese 'two days drunk', the Chinese 'drunk overnight.' The Swedes get, 'smacked from behind.' But it is in languages that describe the effects, rather than the cause, that we begin to see real poetic power. Salvadorans wake up 'made of rubber,' the French with a 'wooden mouth' or a 'hair ache.' The Germans and the Dutch say they have a 'tomcat' presumably wailing. The Poles reportedly experience a 'howling of kittens.' My favorites are the Danes, who get 'carpenters in the forehead.' "


Joan Acocella


'A Few Too Many'


The New Yorker


May 26, 2008


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