Ring in the New Year With Cheer -- Not a Hangover

Doctors explain the goings-on in the body after a heavy night of drinking.

ByABC News
December 30, 2010, 2:45 PM

Dec. 31, 2010— -- Praying to the porcelain god, your heart races and you wonder if someone has chopped an axe through you head. Why, why, why? you ask.

Well, you drank too much, silly.

Most people who consume alcohol have had a hangover at least once in their lives. And some of those people raising their glasses on New Year's Eve may be clutching their heads and bellies on Jan. 1.

"A hangover is a metabolic storm," said Dr. Joel Saper, founder and director of the Michigan Head-Pain and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich. "It is a series of biological changes that occur in the body."

Key symptoms of a hangover include a (usually throbbing) headache, nausea, diarrhea, excessive fatigue and extreme thirst and dehydration.

So what's actually going on in the body once the hangover sets in? Doctors say they can't be entirely sure.

"Hangovers are not entirely understood, but dehydration, electrolyte and hormonal abnormalities, low blood sugar and direct toxic effects all contribute," said Dr. Andrew Yacht, vice chairman of the department of medicine at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The liver breaks down alcohol into a byproduct called acetaldehyde, which is more toxic to the body than the alcohol itself, and is the reason for the post-drinking side effects.

But, as many people have noticed, every person reacts differently to alcohol. Some people have a few sips of alcohol and feel terrible the next day, while others can consume drink after drink into the wee hours of the morning and feel great.

That's because it's not just the amount of alcohol that goes into the body that influences the hangover.

Age, genetics, medications, diet, immune systems, weight and gender all can come into play.

"These are generalizations, but people who are heavier tend to be more prone to hangover headaches, and women are more prone to the effects of alcohol than men," said Saper. "If you have a weakened system to begin with, you're probably going to be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, as well."