[CUA Office of Public Affairs]

The Chemistry of Hangovers

10 March 1998


a.gif (1076 bytes) hangover is the nasty payback for consuming too much alcohol. But what is it about alcohol that causes the throbbing headache, upset stomach and fatigue?

Diane Bunce, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., says that "cogeners," which are natural products resulting from fermentation and processing of beer and alcohol, are largely responsible for hangovers.

"Dark-colored distilled spirits such as scotch, rye, and bourbon have the most cogeners, while vodka, gin, and white wines have the least," said Professor Bunce.

"A headache is an allergic reaction to the cogeners. Alcohol irritates the mucous lining of the stomach, causing nausea. Upset stomach, headache and thirst can be considered forms of mild withdrawal from the alcohol. "

Fatigue is the aftermath of a typically higher-than-normal activity level during drinking and the fact that alcohol increases blood sugar for about an hour followed by several hours of low blood sugar, Professor Bunce said. "It is the low blood sugar that makes one feel tired. This is also the reason why alcohol consumption is dangerous for diabetics."

She warns that "aging increases the level of cogeners in distilled spirits. Thus 25-year-old scotch will result in more hangover effects than 5-year-old scotch."

Professor Bunce may be reached at 202-319-5390 (o) or at 410-451-7343.

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Revised: 10 March 1998

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The Catholic University of America,
Office of Public Affairs.