Hangover vs Withdrawal: What Is This Feeling?

Hangover vs Withdrawal: What Is This Feeling?

“I’d like to make a withdrawal, please.” This is the best kind of withdrawal: taking cash out of the bank to spend for yourself.

But in all seriousness, you’re likely concerned about a more negative type of withdrawal — you may be tired, nauseous, with a pounding headache, and wondering whether this is a hangover or withdrawal.

In this article, we delve into the differences between a hangover and withdrawal, exploring the unpleasant symptoms and causes of both, as well as what to do in each scenario.

Understanding Hangovers and Their Causes

Hangovers are a familiar occurrence for many of us, happening after a night of excessive alcohol consumption. They can leave you feeling miserable and can greatly affect your productivity the next day. Hangovers are the body's way of telling you that you've overindulged in alcohol and need time to recover.

  • Hangovers vary from person to person but commonly include a pounding headache, fatigue, nausea, and dehydration. These can be attributed to the toxic byproducts produced when the liver breaks down alcohol. The more you drink, the more severe your hangover symptoms are likely to be.
  • Dehydration is a key factor in hangover symptoms. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it increases urine production and leads to fluid loss. This, combined with the fact that alcohol inhibits the release of a hormone called vasopressin, which helps the body reabsorb water, can leave you feeling dehydrated and thirsty the morning after a night of heavy drinking.
  • Another contributing factor to hangover symptoms is the presence of congeners in alcoholic beverages. Congeners are toxic substances produced during the fermentation process and are responsible for the taste, aroma, and color of different alcoholic drinks. Darker beverages, such as red wine and whiskey, tend to have higher congener content, which can increase the severity of hangover symptoms.

Symptoms of a Hangover

Hangover symptoms can vary from person to person, but some of the most common ones include a throbbing headache, sensitivity to light and sound, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and dehydration. These symptoms can make it difficult to function normally and can greatly impact your day.

In addition to physical symptoms, hangovers can also have an impact on your mental well-being. Many people experience feelings of irritability, anxiety, depression, and difficulty concentrating after a night of heavy drinking. These symptoms can be attributed to the effect of alcohol on neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine.

It's important to note that the severity of hangover symptoms can be influenced by various factors, including the amount and type of alcohol consumed, individual tolerance, hydration levels, and overall health. Some people may be more prone to experiencing severe hangovers than others.

The Science Behind Hangovers

The exact mechanisms behind hangovers are not fully understood, but several factors have been identified as contributing to their development:

  1. Acetaldehyde: One of the main culprits is the toxic byproduct of alcohol metabolism called acetaldehyde. When you consume alcohol, your liver breaks it down into acetaldehyde, which is then further broken down into harmless substances by enzymes. However, when you drink too much, the enzymes are unable to keep up with the amount of acetaldehyde produced, leading to its accumulation in the body and the unpleasant symptoms associated with hangovers.
  2. Cytokines: Alcohol also affects the production of certain chemicals in the body, such as cytokines, which are involved in the body's immune response. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines, which can contribute to symptoms such as headache and fatigue.
  3. Gastrointestinal system: Additionally, alcohol can disrupt the normal function of the gastrointestinal system, leading to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain. It can also irritate the stomach lining, leading to increased acid production and heartburn.

Coping Mechanisms for Hangovers

While there is no surefire cure for a hangover, there are several steps you can take to alleviate the symptoms and help your body recover:

  1. The most important thing is to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. This can help replenish the fluids lost due to alcohol's diuretic effect and can help alleviate symptoms such as headache and fatigue.
  2. Consuming a light, nutritious meal can also help provide your body with the essential nutrients it needs to recover. Foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, can help combat the oxidative stress caused by alcohol metabolism. Avoiding greasy or spicy foods is recommended, as they can further irritate the stomach.
  3. Resting and getting plenty of sleep is crucial for allowing your body to recover. Alcohol can disrupt the normal sleep cycle, leading to poor-quality sleep and increased feelings of fatigue. Taking a nap during the day can help make up for the lost sleep and aid in the recovery process.

Understanding Withdrawal and Its Causes

Now we shift to the other side of hangover vs withdrawal - the more serious side. Withdrawal is a more prolonged and severe condition that usually occurs when someone abruptly stops drinking alcohol after a period of heavy and prolonged consumption. It is a result of the body's dependence on alcohol, and the symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on various factors such as the duration and intensity of alcohol use.

One of the primary causes of withdrawal is the development of physical dependence on alcohol. When you consume alcohol regularly and in large amounts, your body becomes accustomed to its presence and adjusts its functioning accordingly. Over time, the body adapts to the presence of alcohol and relies on it to maintain normal functioning. When alcohol consumption is abruptly stopped, the body goes into a state of imbalance, leading to the development of withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms of Withdrawal

The symptoms of withdrawal can manifest both physically and psychologically.

  • Physical symptoms can include tremors, sweating, rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, headache, and insomnia.
  • Psychological symptoms can include anxiety, irritability, restlessness, depression, and difficulty concentrating.

The severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on individual factors such as the length and intensity of alcohol use, overall health, and the presence of any underlying medical conditions.

It's also worth mentioning that withdrawal symptoms can be accompanied by intense cravings for alcohol. These cravings can be extremely challenging to resist, and the risk of relapse is high during this time. This is why professional help and support from healthcare providers and addiction specialists are often essential for a successful recovery.

In severe cases, withdrawal can lead to a condition known as delirium tremens (DTs), which is characterized by hallucinations, severe confusion, seizures, and potentially life-threatening changes in heart rate and blood pressure. DTs are a medical emergency and require immediate medical attention.

The Science Behind Withdrawal

The science behind withdrawal is complex and involves various neurochemical and physiological processes. Prolonged and heavy alcohol use disrupts the normal functioning of the brain and central nervous system. Alcohol affects the levels of neurotransmitters such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate, which are involved in regulating mood, anxiety, and excitability. When alcohol is removed, the imbalance in these neurotransmitters can lead to the development of withdrawal symptoms.

Chronic alcohol use also affects the release and function of other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which are involved in reward and pleasure pathways. When alcohol is no longer present, the brain struggles to maintain normal levels of these neurotransmitters, leading to feelings of depression, anxiety, and restlessness.

Additionally, long-term alcohol use can cause changes in the structure and function of the brain, leading to cognitive impairments and difficulties in decision-making and impulse control. These changes can contribute to the development of withdrawal symptoms and make recovery more challenging.

Coping Mechanisms for Withdrawal

Coping with withdrawal symptoms can be challenging, but with the right support and strategies, it is possible to successfully navigate this stage of recovery.

  1. Seeking professional help is crucial for managing withdrawal symptoms and ensuring a safe and comfortable detoxification process. Medical supervision can help monitor vital signs, manage severe symptoms, and provide appropriate medications to ease withdrawal discomfort.
  2. Support from loved ones and participation in support groups can provide a valuable source of encouragement and guidance during the withdrawal process. Connecting with others who have gone through similar experiences can help reduce feelings of isolation and provide a sense of community and understanding.     If you’re looking for a stronger support network who can provide help 24/7, consider Relay, a digital addiction recovery program that will match you with a group of peers in recovery and help you work together.
  3. Engaging in healthy coping mechanisms and self-care practices can also play a significant role in managing withdrawal symptoms. Engaging in regular physical exercise, practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation, and ensuring a balanced diet can help support physical and emotional well-being during this challenging time.


Conclusion: Hangover vs Withdrawal - Understanding the Difference

In conclusion, while hangovers or withdrawal may share some similar symptoms, they are distinct experiences with different underlying causes and durations. Hangovers are the body's response to excessive alcohol consumption and usually resolve within 24 hours. Withdrawal, on the other hand, occurs when someone abruptly stops drinking after a period of heavy and prolonged alcohol use, and the symptoms can be more severe and prolonged.

Understanding the differences between hangover vs withdrawal is very important for managing the effects of excessive alcohol consumption. Whether you're dealing with a hangover or experiencing withdrawal symptoms, it's important to prioritize your health and well-being and seek professional help if necessary. Remember, taking care of yourself is always worth it.

If you’re looking to cut back on alcohol use, keep reading below, and take a look at our recovery program Relay.


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Hangovers

National Institutes of Health - Cytokines and Alcohol

MedLinePlus.Gov - Alcohol Withdrawal

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