Many students have experienced the morning-after sensations of too much drinking, but not as many know what causes the headaches, stomach pain and sensitivity to light and sound.
Dr. Jane Higgins of the Hartshorn Health Services said a variety of factors contribute to alcohol's aftereffects. Alcohol's impacts range from sedating the central nervous system – including the brain and motor skills – to irritating the lining of the stomach and altering urine levels through the kidney and pituitary.
"One of the big effects is, yes, it's a diuretic – it dries you out," Higgins said.
As a diuretic, alcohol pulls water from the body into the urine, said Pam McCracken, director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Education. Increased urination leads to imbalanced electrolytes and dehydration. Combined with the vomiting that sometimes accompanies drinking, this can leave a drinker with nasty symptoms in the morning.
"The dehydration can cause the brain to shrink away from the skull a little bit," McCracken said.
Additionally, alcohol dilates blood vessels in the brain, altering the concentrations of certain neurotransmitters and leading to headaches and feelings of disorientation, or "fuzziness."
Dehydration can also lead to changes in electrolytes like potassium, which controls the heartbeat and blood sugar levels, McCracken said.
"You're going to be pretty tired the next day," she warned. "The big advice is just to drink plenty of water, maybe some Gatorade or sports drinks to replenish the electrolytes and of course, go back to bed."
Higgins addressed a variety of other effects, including the toxic substances produced when the body begins to break alcohol down. Usually, she said, humans use an enzyme in the stomach to eliminate these toxins, but some people do not have enough of the particular enzyme. For them, alcohol is not as quickly processed and results in longer-lasting effects.
Ethanol, a chemical component of alcohol, becomes acetaldehyde in the stomach, which is a toxin, Higgins said. For individuals who cannot further process acetaldehyde, the chemical buildup can cause flushing, sweating and changes in heart beat.
Frank Cohoon, program manager of the Island Grove Regional Treatment Center in Greeley, where the CSU Police Department sends intoxicated students to sober up, said a healthy liver can dissipate alcohol at a rate to lower the drinker's blood-alcohol level by 0.015 per hour, although body weight also contributes to the rate of alcohol dissipation.
"Sobering up takes time," Cohoon said. "How much time depends on how much you drank the night before."
Cohoon also said that since alcohol is a sedative, excessive drinking could lower heartbeat and breathing rates, sometimes to the point of death.
Also, since alcohol is a mild irritant, it can disturb stomach linings, resulting in next-day nausea, vomiting and stomachaches. And vomiting is a double-edged sword, it seems: it helps reduce the alcohol volume in the body, which can save a drinker's life, but it also further dehydrates the drinker.
McCracken, Higgins and Cohoon agreed a hangover is a good indication the individual is drinking too much.
"A social drinker probably doesn't have (hangovers)," he said. "Hangovers come from drinking more than is wise."