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Anatomy of a Hangover

[whitespace] short picture description The physical truths and ugly realities about the day after




You might forget your manners
You might refuse to stay
And so the best that I can do is pray
"Luck Be a Lady" (Loesser)

By John Kater

YOU FEEL AN INTENSE instability on the ground as awareness painfully dawns. When you feebly attempt to separate your granulated eyelids, the light that permeates is transformed into an industrial laser, heating the pickax battering the back of your eyes to the approximate temperature of the sun's corona. When you are able to quell the nausea sufficiently enough to allow coherent thought, you begin to ponder those elusive questions: Will you survive the next few hours, do you really want to, and do you really care? What perverse biological mechanism allows hair to hurt? Were those last six tequila shooters really such a good idea?

You are experiencing a hangover.

But what causes hangovers? How does that warm, fuzzy buzz transform overnight into a hot, hairy clamor? And why does it seem to hit with random intensity, negligible one time and miserable the next?

From a scientific standpoint, there are several things going on that contribute to the intensity of a hangover, and some of these are more controllable than others. The first (and most important) is the quantity of alcohol consumed. The second is dehydration. Equally important, however, is what you drink. There is an explainable scientific phenomenon that verifies what you've suspected all this time: Vodka hangovers really do hurt more than beer hangovers.

Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is the active ingredient in liquor. It falls somewhere between a food and a drug in classification. The FDA defines a drug as anything that "is deemed to be for therapeutic or diagnostic use or to affect the structure or function of the body." But ethanol is a food in that, like proteins or fats, it has caloric value. This means that as it is processed by your cells, ATP, the body's energy storage chemical, is produced. Before this happens, however, ethanol must be transformed into pyruvate, a normal product in sugar metabolism.

The intermediate stage between ethanol and pyruvate--called acetaldehyde--is quite toxic and is the smoking gun of the hangover phenomena. Like ethanol, acetaldehyde is processed by the liver at a fixed rate, regardless of how much of it is in the bloodstream. The conversion of ethanol to acetaldehyde also uses excessive amounts of NAD plus, an important element of the body's normal energy-production process, which explains some of the depressant effects of alcohol. The body's attempt to restore normal levels of this element triggers a diuretic effect and dehydration is the result. Not only do you get intermediate toxins, low energy levels, and dehydration, but one side effect of dehydration is the loss of needed water-soluble vitamins and minerals, generally wreaking havoc on a body that's already been put through the wringer.

But are all hangovers created equal or are some more equal than others? Is there any truth to that "beer before liquor, liquor on beer" thing we can never quite remember? It is important to point out that how you drink is as important as what you drink. The speed at which ethanol is absorbed into the bloodstream is proportional to the relative strength of the alcohol in your stomach. Food in the stomach can slow the uptake of ethanol and allow the body to process it--and later acetaldehyde--more efficiently. The stronger the drink, the faster the uptake and the more eventual an acetaldehyde backup. Drink quality is also an important factor. So what, besides price and marketing, differentiates premium hooch from rot-gut?

One answer is ... happy yeast. Yeast, the oldest domesticated organism, is the magic beastie that turns sugar into ethanol. There are many strains that are better or worse for producing beer, bread, champagne, cider, sake, wine, and all the precursors to distilled products--except tequila. (We'll come back to that later).

Yeast, like any other organism, is subject to stress. Malnutrition, overcrowding, overwork and temperature extremes all stress yeast as much as they will people. And like people, yeast under stress tends to behave badly and unpredictably.

A happy yeast cell is one surrounded by easily fermentable sugars, plenty of other nutrients, room to grow and reproduce, and enough other yeast around to conquer all the other microscopic bugs in the neighborhood. A good fermentation consists of happy yeast using specialized enzymes to catalyze the conversion of simple sugars to ethanol and carbon dioxide.

If, however, something isn't quite right, things take a nasty turn. Say someone lets the temperature get too high to speed things up, or tries to skimp by using cheap malt diluted with rice or corn. The individual yeast cells begin hoarding nutrients, rendering them unavailable to the newly budded cells. The new cells, which soon exponentially outnumber the originals, don't sit idly by while starved for amino acids or vitamins; they make these from scratch, starting with glucose.

This is fine until the sugar runs out or ethanol reaches levels toxic to the cells themselves. These compounds are converted into alcohols and aldehydes and put back into your beverage.

By now these compounds aren't the relatively benign ethanol and acetaldehyde. Now we're dealing with fusel oil and its breakdown products, which are more toxic than ethanol and acetaldehyde, so mere trace amounts have a much higher potential for the dreaded hair-hurt syndrome. The bad news about fusel oil is that it is the worst offender in causing please-kill-me-now hangovers. The good news is that we can pick what we drink to avoid it.

Red wine is fermented warm for the first few days to enhance color extraction, which explains why reds tend to get you worse than whites. In general, we can say that the stronger a beer or wine, the more stress the yeast was subjected to and the more fusel oil produced. We now have enough information to explain why cheap corn beer produces a worse hangover than good microbrews or imports. An important exception is "lite" beer, which is essentially diluted malt liquor and is therefore worse than the full-calorie version of the same beer. Typically, cheaper production produces worse hangovers due to economic production concerns such as: It's cheaper to ferment warm than to ferment refrigerated, it's not worth maintaining a laboratory to monitor pre-distillation fermentations, or it's cheaper to dilute the grape pressings with table sugar and water than more grape juice.

Another factor to take into account is how the product has been handled. The natural oxidation or staling product of ethanol is acetaldehyde. This means stale beer or wine is worse than fresh. Yes, the jug-o'-red that your family finished half of on Thanksgiving did give you a headache when you finished it at Christmas. Yes, the beer that was in your trunk for a week and that day-old keg of brew really did give you a brain-splitter. Otherwise, as far as draft versus bottled goes, draft is generally safer than bottled or canned because it is generally kept cold.

So what else can increase the odds of morning-after misery? Distillation.

Wine and beer contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, soluble fibers, cholesterol uptake inhibitors, anti-carcinogens and other things generally accepted to be good for you. Moderate drinkers (European definition of moderate: around 3 drinks a day) outlive teetotalers by about 10 percent, partially due to these goodies and partially due to the ironic nature of the universe.

But if you distill something, you recover only the volatile materials. In fact, because ethanol and water evaporate together in a fixed ratio, fusel oils get an even higher relative concentration in the distillate than existed in the original fermented material.

All liquors are distilled from "beers" and "wines" of some sort, typically with solids present and often with bacterial infections like "sour-mash." Because nobody actually drinks the "beers" and "wines" in the pre-distillation stage, less care is taken to ensure a clean fermentation. And because these are fermented warm and without proper yeast populations and nutrition monitoring, a higher level of fusel oil is produced even before being concentrated by distillation. Sweetened, flavored liqueurs tend to start with the cheapest base booze available since the flavors will be covered up anyway, and so contain some of the highest levels of hangover producers.

There are more refined and expensive methods of distillation that allow for better control of the toxic substances in the final booze, and at least one "hangover-proof" vodka is made by deleting the fractions with the most fusel oil. Better, though, is aging in hardwood for at least eight to 10 years. Hardwood aging is essentially a very controlled evaporation with the most volatile compounds like higher alcohols and aldehydes evaporating first. Not only does the bad stuff get out by slow evaporation, but the ethanol leaches minerals, tannins and carbohydrates back out of the wood and into the hooch, replacing some of the distillation losses. So there really is a justification for shelling out more for expensive liquor like cognac, 12-year-old scotch and anejo rum over well brands.

Tequila is not fermented by yeast but by the bacteria Zymomonas, which utilizes different metabolic pathways to produce ethanol than does the yeast cell and is considered to be a spoilage organism in most other fermented beverages. It therefore tends to produce a dirtier fermentation.

To summarize, if you're going out for an evening of barhopping with friends, you can take several precautions to avoid a near-death experience when the alarm goes off. The first is not to drink too much. Stay away from shooters and mixed drinks. Second, pick the higher-quality choice. Drink water as you go. If you drink different concoctions over the course of your evening, expect to get a wider spectrum of undesirable stuff for your body to contend with. White wines are generally safer than reds, but a good red is better than a cheap white. Always dilute liquor with water or fruit juice. Carbonated mixers release gas, which forces uptake of alcohol at a faster rate. Avoid caffeine, as it increases the amount of alcohol and fusel oil you absorb. Finally, take a multi-vitamin and drink as much water as possible before going to bed.

Good luck.

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From the June 11-17, 1998 issue of Metro.

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