Do Hangovers Change Behaviors of Frequent Drinkers?

Posted on March 25th, 2014
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Hangover is the common term for the group of unpleasant sensations that can appear in the aftermath of the consumption of significant amounts of alcohol. Current evidence suggests that susceptibility to these sensations may play an important role in any given person’s chances of developing diagnosable symptoms of alcohol-related problems. In a study scheduled for 2014 publication in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from three U.S. universities sought to determine if the presence of hangovers alters the drinking behaviors of people who consume alcohol on a frequent basis.

The Basics

Despite its social acceptability as a recreational substance, alcohol has poisonous effects on the normal function of the human body. Some of these effects stem directly from the presence of alcohol (technically known as ethyl alcohol or ethanol), while others stem from the breakdown of alcohol inside the liver and the formation of toxic alcohol byproducts. As a rule, hangovers appear after a person has consumed enough alcohol to substantially elevate his or her blood-alcohol level, trigger a considerable buildup of alcohol byproducts and alter the course of several other basic bodily activities. Specific symptoms associated with the presence of a hangover include headaches, unusual sensitivity to light and/or noise, unusual fatigue or lack of motivation, nausea, diarrhea and a decline in appetite. The severity of these symptoms can vary widely from person to person or from drinking episode to drinking episode. While many people experience hangovers for less than a day, others experience them for as long as three days.

Most men run the risk of developing a hangover after consuming at least five alcoholic drinks in a relatively brief span of time. Most women develop hangover risks after consuming at least three alcoholic drinks in a brief timespan. For men, the indicated level of alcohol intake crosses the border between moderate daily drinking (an activity which does not typically increase risks for alcohol abuse or alcoholism) and heavy drinking (which does increase risks for alcohol abuse and alcoholism). For women, the indicated level of intake is right at the upper threshold for moderate daily drinking. In truth, many people with hangovers drink much more than the minimal amount required to produce symptoms and solidly qualify as either regular heavy drinkers or periodic heavy alcohol consumers known as binge drinkers.

Hangovers in Frequent Drinkers

Statistically speaking, a drinker who experiences hangovers is more likely to have diagnosable alcohol-related problems (or develop such problems in the future) than a drinker who does not experience hangovers. Although the underlying reasons for this connection are not entirely clear, they likely have something to do with the relatively high level of short-term alcohol intake required to trigger hangover symptoms. In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from the University of Missouri, the University of Pittsburgh and the Washington University School of Medicine looked at how the experience of a hangover affects the future, short-term drinking behaviors of someone who frequently consumes alcohol. This investigation included 386 drinkers who recorded their intake patterns over a period of three weeks. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know if a frequent drinker with a hangover delayed future alcohol consumption for a longer amount of time than a frequent drinker without a hangover.

All told, the study participants reported 463 cases of hangover in the 21-day time period under consideration. The researchers concluded that, when all other factors are eliminated, the presence of a hangover does increase the amount of time that it takes for a frequent drinker to consume more alcohol. However, the average increase in time only added up to about six hours; the researchers did not view this delay in alcohol consumption as significant.

Significance and Considerations

In addition to hangovers, the authors of the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research examined the impact of a number of other factors on the amount of time it takes for a frequent drinker to consume more alcohol. These factors included the presence of diagnosable symptoms of alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse or alcoholism), the drinker’s age, the drinker’s normal level of alcohol intake, the drinker’s level of alcohol craving following a bout of alcohol consumption and the impact of financial stress. Out of these factors, only level of craving and financial stress overlapped with the influence of hangovers to any real degree.

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