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Looks at the effects of alcohol on the various systems of the body describing the symptoms of a hangover and why they happen. Gives tips for before, during and after drinking to help minimize the effects and prevent hangovers.

We all know that excessive drinking is bad for our health. In moderation alcohol has some health benefits and we can get away with feeling pretty normal the next day. But overdo it and you could be in for a pounding headache, a run to the toilet and a general uneasy feeling. The best hangover prevention of course, is abstinence. If you are going to indulge, there are some before, during and after drinking tricks to prevent or minimize alcohol’s negative effects.

Alcohol is both a tonic and a poison; with it is safe to say that alcohol is both a tonic and a poison. On the plus side it relaxes us, acts as a social lubricant and has mild protective benefits for the cardiovascular system. 

In excess alcohol damages the body and can lead to liver dysfunction, high blood pressure, increased cancer risk and accidents.

Drinking should always be done responsibly and mindfully and although it is never recommended to over-indulge, some of us invariably do and it helps to know how to manage your health should you go over the edge.

How Does Alcohol Make Us Ill?

Alcohols effects can be seen in various parts of the body, all of which contribute to the overall feeling of having a hangover. The parts affected include:

The Effects Of Alcohol On The Digestive System

The reason we feel the effects of alcohol so fast is because it is absorbed directly through the mouth and stomach lining into the bloodstream. Alcohol, especially when taken in excess or on an empty stomach burns and irritates the lining of our digestive system, which can cause symptoms like diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting.

The Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain

Alcohol is essentially a depressant rather that a stimulant. It depresses brain function resulting in relaxation and less inhibitions but also loss of coordination, slurring of speech, memory lapses and even complete blackouts at high levels.

The Effects Of Alcohol On The Kidneys

Alcohol is a diuretic and causes dehydration through water loss. You might find that heavy drinking causes you to urinate more and if you don’t replace your fluids, dehydration can set in fast. 

Dehydration is a major cause of alcohol related headaches.

The Effects Of Alcohol On The Endocrine System

Alcohol directly causes the pancreas to secrete more of the hormone insulin, which in turn lowers our blood sugar. This is why we often feel really hungry after drinking. Low blood sugar is also part of the reason for headaches and the general feelings of shakiness and fatigue the day after.

The Effects of Alcohol On The Liver

Our liver is a detoxification organ and since alcohol is a toxin, when we binge we tend to put the liver under stress. This can result in a general queasy feeling after drinking and can also contribute to some of the gastro-intestinal effects since the liver has major roles in digestion. Over time, excessive drinking can also damage the liver through oxidative stress, inflammation and upsetting the bacterial flora in our digestive systems.

Nutritional Effects Of Alcohol

Our nutritional status also suffers after we drink alcohol and especially over time when bingeing is regular. There is a pronounced loss of B complex vitamins (especially the vitamins thiamine and vitamin B6). Vitamin C, magnesium and potassium also decline.

Steps In Preventing Hangovers

There are certain steps you can take before, during and after drinking to help minimize alcohols negative effects and prevent hangovers.

On The Big Night Out

  • Always eat a substantial meal before you drink to help line the stomach.
  • Keep hydrated. As a general rule, drink one glass of water for every alcoholic drink you take. Try alternating your alcoholic drinks with water.
  • Be careful not to mix your drinks. It’s better to try sticking to one type of alcoholic drink for the night.
  • Substances called congeners found in red wine and coloured spirits can exacerbate a hangover. White wine and clear spirits like vodka tend to have a lesser effect.
  • It is not advised to drink if you have a sensitive stomach or if you have been taking been taking any anti-biotic, anti-anxiety, barbiturate and sedative medications, or if you use recreational drugs.

When You Get Home

  • Have some fruit juice or a glucose based drink before bed to push the blood sugar up. Ideally choose something with a good electrolyte concentration too as it speeds up hydration. A glucose plus electrolyte sports drinks, rehydration solution or coconut water are good choices. . 
  • It is best not to take paracetamol or ibuprofen based painkillers for hangover prevention. These drugs are metabolised with alcohol in the liver and just place extra stress on the liver. Also, avoid take Aspirin too with alcohol, as it can damage the stomach lining.

The Morning After

If you hadn’t taken the precautionary steps, and you wake up with a hangover, try the following to help ease the pain:

  • Eat something light. Although many people go for fatty foods when hangover, its actually better to avoid too much fat, especially if you have had an upset stomach. Eggs are a good choice as they are rich in cysteine, which helps the liver metabolise alcohol. Tomato and tomato juice are also great as they contain many of the many of the minerals and vitamins that alcohol depletes. Stick to lean proteins like chicken breast, white fish or lean meat and bland carbohydrates like plain pasta, crackers or toast.
  • Hydrate by drinking water, glucose and electrolytes.
  • Take a sauna or steam bath or do some vigorous exercise. This helps induce sweating and can speed up toxin elimination from the body. Just make sure you are adequately hydrated before you do this.
  • Grate some fresh ginger in hot water or drink some ginger tea to help with nausea. Lemon water also helps neutralize an acidic stomach post drinking.
  • Supplements can also sometimes help. B complex vitamins, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C and probiotics being the best choices.
  • Natural remedies like milk thistle and artichoke extract help support liver function.

Herbal Helpers

Many herbal remedies can be used to control symptoms or support the body’s detoxification processes.

 Some of the more popular ones include:

  • Ginger tea, which can be used to reduce nausea
  • Peppermint teas, which help initiate sweating and detoxification
  • The herb Milk Thistle, which helps the liver to detoxify alcohol. Milk Thistle can be taken as a liver tonic throughout the holiday season to help the liver cope with excess intakes of both food and alcohol.
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