If the nausea and dry mouth induced by a raging hangover isn’t bad enough, a new study shows that it also impairs your brain function and reaction times.
Scientists who study hangovers usually focus on the physiological symptoms. But the new analysis, which is to be presented later today at Keele University (August 1), considered the ways it influences cognitive functioning.
Now, the researchers didn’t study the effects of drinking alcohol per se. Their analysis was specific to hangovers — that not-so-pleasant set of symptoms that linger as alcohol levels in the body return to zero.
Researcher Lauren Owen discovered that hangovers have a detrimental impact on our working memory. This is what helps us to hold and process information in our minds. Impairments to working memory, therefore, can result in a diminished ability to perform basic tasks like mental arithmetic.
The findings, though still preliminary, indicated a 5-10% drop in the performance of working memory during a hangover. Errors on mental tasks increased by as much as 30% — which is no joke. You definitely don’t want to be writing an exam or an important paper while hungover.
But not only that, hangovers also result in slower reaction times, though only marginally. A hungover person in their 20s was shown to have the reaction time of someone in their 40s.
As for the reasons, dehydration may have something to do with it. But there are other factors to consider as well, including the presence of ethanol in alcoholic drinks. During a hangover, our bodies break this chemical down in order to expel it. But during the conversion process it briefly forms the toxic molecule acetaldehyde. Also, darker drinks tend to contain elevated levels of complex organic molecules called congeners which are known to make hangovers worse.
As for a cure, The Telegraph asked Dr. Richard Stephens, a senior psychology lecturer at Keele University, for his suggestion:
He said: “The enzymes in our bodies preferentially break down ethanol over methanol. “So if they are breaking down methanol and producing these toxins, drinking a bit more ethanol will help.
“So there is a biological basis for hair of the dog.”
However, he adds, this may simply put off the inevitable and there is evidence that alcoholics suffer worse hangovers.