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Chemistry of a Hangover — Alcohol and its Consequences


How can a tiny molecule like ethanol be at the root of so much human misery?
Here we propose to get to the bottom of the chemical consequences of a night of celebrating to excess.

Many of us know from painful experience how the over-enjoyment of alcohol can disagree with our systems. Nevertheless, the tendency persists, over and over again, to suppress this simple bit of wisdom. The typical symptoms: after a short period of lifted inhibitions, accompanied by increasingly childish tomfoolery, usually serious problems with speech follow. Continuing to imbibe further leads to confusion and loss of orientation, as well as an inability to move the extremities in a coordinated fashion. The state of complete inebriation produces total helplessness from a fully impaired sense of equilibrium.
It‘s true that all the alcohol consumed will be completely metabolized within 8–12 hours, but the physical effects last longer. There arises what is colloquially referred to as a “hangover”, or “veisalgia” in medical terminology. The latter is in turn a word derived from the Norwegian “kveis”, for indisposition brought on by intemperance, and the Greek “algia” for pain. Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, equilibrium problems, general weakness, lack of appetite, dry mouth, etc.
Given that the ethanol culprit has already been metabolized by the time the first symptoms of a hangover appear, the question naturally arises: What is it that actually tortures us to the point that we may well feel closer to death than to life? Let’s look for chemical traces by tracking the course of an ethanol molecule from the first swig to the bitter end.