If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you’ve had a hangover before. You might even have one right now. I was never very interested in the “why” or “how” of my hangovers on a chemical level. Overconsumption paired with not eating enough food or drinking enough water was the obvious cause, and a chemistry degree was not necessary to understand why I felt like the grim reaper was looming over my dehydrated, whinging body. Desperate internet searches for a cure was the extent of my hangover research. Please, dear Ninkasi, make it stop…
By some accidental rabbit holing that started with researching off flavors in beer, I came across one that might be a bit more “off” than others. So off, that it’s one of the big reasons your body feels like a microwaved, deflated birthday balloon after a night on the drink. I’m looking at you, acetaldehyde!
Acetaldehyde is one of those off flavors taught in beer preschool. You may recall reading about the Granny Smith aroma it puts off in young beer from our previous post, The Unsavoury Off Flavor. As it turns out, tinging your beer with a cidery flavor and aroma is the least of its offenses. It’s what happens after alcohol hits your lips that reveals the true nature of this appley beast.
When you consume alcohol, your body goes through a series of steps and responses before it is able to exit your system. The first step of metabolization occurs when ethanol (alcohol) is oxidized by alcohol dehydrogenases and other enzymes to form – you guessed it – acetaldehyde! It doesn’t matter what kind of booze you’re drinking or if your beer had the off flavor before you drank it, any ethanol that enters your body will turn into acetaldehyde after this first step of metabolization. So now what?
Step two is the bottleneck of metabolizing alcohol that can leave you phoning in a sick day. The acetaldehyde that was formed in step one is oxidized into nontoxic acetate by aldehyde dehydrogenase and glutathione. The real kicker is that your liver only has a small amount of these enzymes reserved, so consuming alcohol quickly can cause a buildup of acetaldehyde in your system. Therein lies the hangover.
Acetaldehyde is 10-30 times more toxic than alcohol, and is listed as a Group 1 carcinogen by The International Agency for Research on Cancer. The longer it takes to process this toxin, the higher the chance that tomorrow is going to suck. Glutathione, responsible for the second step in metabolizing ethanol, is also responsible for the detoxification of many other cells in the body. When glutathione is depleted, your body is not only stuck with a build up of toxic acetaldehyde, but the rest of your body suffers from the inability to process whatever other toxins may be wandering your innards.
When the human body does not have enzymes that are efficient at processing acetaldehyde, the skin and face can become flush and red through capillary dilation. This human sensitivity to acetaldehyde is genetic, and exists most commonly in those of Asian descent. Breath that smells like green apples is another result of the build up.
As if having a Group 1 carcinogen hanging around extra long in your body causing bad breath, red cheeks, and headaches wasn’t enough, the consumption of alcohol inhibits the production of glutamine, a natural stimulant in the body. When you stop drinking, your body overproduces this stimulant, giving you restless sleep and a hefty helping of fatigue the next day. Nice.
There’s a lot more going on in your body when you drink alcohol than is listed here, but the gist is that acetaldehyde and your body’s ability to process it is a major contributor to your monthly consumption of ibuprofen and bananas. I’ve never found a hangover cure that can work fast enough, but keeping the fridge stocked with your personal hangover cocktail always helps.
Whether you’re ruminating on hangovers past or present, beware that damned acetaldehyde. It’s not just an off flavor!
- “IARC Strengthens Its Findings On Several Carcinogenic Personal Habits And Household Exposures”
- Scientific American – In Search of a Cure for the Dreaded Hangover
- U.S. National Library of Medicine, TOXNET, Acetaldehyde
- HowStuffWorks – How Hangovers Work