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To your health

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Understanding what you've done to your body may help on the morning after

As I sit down to write this the first chills of the season's flu are radiating through my body. With the fever the nausea sets in and all my muscles feel like sand bags. The initial symptoms of flu are not unlike those of the dreaded, too often experienced effects of the overindulgence in alcohol, the hangover. At least with the flu the sympathy one receives is deserved - the hangover, a completely self-inflicted condition, is suffered in isolation. The holidays are often the precursor to overindulgence; the alcohol is freely poured and the frenzy of work and shopping leading up to these days is finally over. Celebrating the new year allows people to really let their hair down, get loose and enjoy. At least until the morning after.

The symptoms of hangover, thirst, fatigue, weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, sleep deprivation, sensitivity to light, vertigo, depression, irritability and sweating, have been the bane of partying since alcohol was discovered. Along with the hangover, countless remedies have been thought up and put to the test to make the pain go away.

Kate, a very good friend of mine, told me once that her Godfather gave her two pieces of advice on her wedding day. The first was to spend the maximum amount of money that you can afford on those things that connect you with the ground - that is, shoes, a bed and tires for the car. The second bit of advice was that Coca Cola will cure any hangover. A friend of a friend swears by eating a dill pickle after drinking and before going to bed. Copious amounts of water are also old standbys, as is aspirin or Tylenol. To sift through some of these remedies and distinguish the realities from the myths, one needs to look at the science behind alcohol consumption.

To begin with, science doesn't completely understand the hangover state as it has not received systematic study. However, it is probably the result of many different factors. Hangover symptoms typically start several hours after a person has stopped drinking, when the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is dropping. Symptoms are worst when BAC is zero.

There are several physiological factors contributing to hangover. Alcohol causes the body to increase urinary output, thereby increasing the symptoms of dehydration which are thirst, weakness, dryness, dizziness and lightheadedness. It also irritates the stomach and intestines, causing inflammation of the stomach lining. This can result in nausea, upper abdominal pain and vomiting. Metabolism of alcohol in the liver and other organs can result in low blood sugar levels. Many people experience the sedative effects of alcohol but it is precisely this effect that can disrupt the body's delicate circadian rhythms. Alcohol decreases the length of time spent dreaming (rapid eye movement sleep) which is necessary for "a good night's sleep", and prolongs the length of time in deep sleep. More often than not, partying happens at night, which generally shortens sleep time, causing fatigue the following morning. All these disruptions produce symptoms that are similar to those experienced during jet lag.

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