The Hangover Headache: Deconstructed

The Hangover Headache: Deconstructed
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Juvenon Health Journal volume 11 number 8 october 2012
By Benjamin V. Treadwell, Ph.D.

By now you probably know all too well that a healthy lifestyle featuring daily exercise, plenty of sleep and a nutritious diet is key to top-of-your-game physical and mental health. But as the song goes ‘you’re only human’ when faced with social situations where enjoying a cocktail (or two) is the norm. One of the most common partying side effects is the dreaded morning-after headache. So why does excessive alcohol consumption make your head hurt? This month’s journal describes the results of a recent study examining the effects of toxins produced from excess alcohol consumption. What’s more, we’ll discuss anti-toxins that just might help neutralize drinkers’ exposure to tissue-damaging toxins.

Liver: The Detoxifier
A jack-of-all-trades, the liver is a hardworking organ with multiple functions. After we eat, the food is delivered from the digestive system to the liver where this important organ goes to work scanning and filtering the foods for pathogens, viruses, bacteria and toxins. Since the foods we eat are a primary source for infection, as well as toxins, it is not surprising that 80 percent to 90 percent of the germ-fighting cells, known as macrophages, are located in this organ.

The liver is also responsible for acting on toxic chemicals in our environment – including the drugs we take – to neutralize and remove them from our tissues. During the neutralization process, drugs are often metabolized to more toxic metabolites before they are ultimately neutralized and excreted from the body. These liver-neutralizing processes normally require specific nutrients that act as vehicles for transporting toxins from the body. The sulfur-containing amino acid called taurine has been shown in recent studies to act as a transporter-neutralizing nutrient. This means taurine may protect against cell and tissue-damaging toxins, including those caused from excess alcohol consumption.

Alcohol and its Metabolites
Whether it’s a fancy cocktail or a simple glass of beer, ethanol is the type of alcohol present. Interestingly, our bodies are continually exposed to some level of ethanol. Our digestive system produces the alcohol during the metabolism, or fermentation, of foods we eat. Normally the body metabolizes this minute amount of alcohol with no apparent side effect (hangover) or toxic effects on tissues. However, when you drink too much alcohol the story changes as the production of toxic metabolites of ethanol makes life miserable, leading to a terrible morning-after headache and more. Chronic alcohol consumption can have serious deleterious effects on our bodies including, but not limited to, the liver, heart and central nervous system.

Amazingly, there has never been unequivocal evidence on what causes a hangover. Ethanol is first metabolized to acetaldehyde, and then by another enzyme to produce acetate. During this metabolic chain of events, there are side reactions that produce additional oxidants, including free radicals. Initially, investigators assumed that since the first metabolite of ethanol, acetaldehyde, was a potent oxidant, and toxic to cells, it was probably the primary causative agent for ethanol’s side effects. However, recent investigations with new, more sophisticated scientific methods has led to the discovery that acetate may be the primary hangover-producing ethanol metabolite. This metabolite is present in levels as much as 100 to 1000 times higher than that of its precursor metabolite, acetaldehyde, as the later is rapidly converted to acetate.

Still, the causative agent may be different for different people and what’s more, there may be more than one culprit. In addition to acetate and acetaldehyde, there are other toxic ethanol metabolites that can contribute to the damaging side effects of alcohol.

Taurine Detoxifies Ethanol
I mentioned above that the final metabolite of ethanol is the toxic hangover-producing compound, acetate. However, a fascinating discovery was made in a study with mice. Scientists found that mice on a high alcohol diet had another metabolite of ethanol, a compound known as N-Acetyl Taurine (NAT) in their urine. Interestingly, spiders also make NAT, which is a component of the sticky droplets for catching prey in orb spider webs. Based on this study, investigators concluded that this new compound, NAT, was the product of a chemical reaction between the natural (our bodies produce it) sulfur-containing amino acid, taurine, and the ethanol metabolite, acetate.

In other words, taurine is functioning as a nutrient in the removal of the headache-producing, tissue toxic acetate. This detoxifying reaction was found mainly in the kidney and liver. Another recent study supported the tissue-protective effects of NAT by showing that mice fed supplemental taurine were largely protected from the toxic tissue-aging effects of ethanol.

A Model for Aging
The above work, although carried out in mice, is interesting as it provides a model for what likely occurs with aging in humans. Ethanol, although fairly harmless in small amounts, can produce toxic oxidants when consumed in high quantities. The aging of our bodies is accelerated by the quality and quantity of foods in our diet. Certain foods, especially those high in sugar and saturated fat and deficient in nutrients/antioxidants are more likely to be converted to toxic metabolites. These toxins bind to and age our tissues causing wrinkled skin, and cross-linked or hardened arteries.

Anti-oxidants, such as N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), lipoic acid and numerous others present in plants we consume, counter the destructive effects of oxidants by increasing levels of toxin-neutralizing cellular antioxidants. NAC is also an important precursor in the synthesis of taurine and can help in the removal of toxic metabolites including those produced from ethanol.

A healthy diet rich in fruits, berries, whole grains and vegetables (especially cruciferous) can also help maintain adequate amounts of antioxidants to help protect against the age-associated increase in tissue destroying oxidants.

Dr. Treadwell answers your questions.

question: I have recently been diagnosed with osteopenia and was informed by my doctor that it was an early sign of bone mineral loss, which often progresses to osteoporosis. Do you have any suggestions as to what I can do to help prevent any additional bone loss and the development of osteoporosis?

answer: There are a number of things one can do to help improve bone health and delay the development of osteoporosis. Exercise, especially resistance exercise, has been shown to improve bone strength and mineral density. Studies have also shown that there are certain supplements that can have significant positive effects on bone health. These supplements include:

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  1. Vitamin D3, 2000 IU/day
  2. Calcium citrate (or carbonate) containing 800 mg of elemental calcium and 400 mg of magnesium per day. The magnesium is added not because of its effects on bone strength, but rather due to the fact that calcium competes with the uptake by cells of the body of magnesium. Magnesium is an important element required for over 400 different biochemical reactions. It is especially important in preventing muscle cramping and for cardiovascular health.
  3. Strontium Citrate, 700 mg of elemental strontium/day

Several recent clinical trials have shown that strontium (an element with similar atomic structure to calcium) binds more tightly to form bone than calcium. Additionally, it can prevent mineral loss as well as restoring mineral to bone previously lost. The studies have demonstrated this element to have few if any side effects.

To be on the safe side, it’s always wise to consult your health care professional before starting on any new drug or supplement.
For more questions and answers, click here.

Dr. Benjamin V. Treadwell is a former Harvard Medical School professor.

Research Update
A group of investigators from the University of Minnesota discovered a new metabolite of ethanol they refer to as NAT (N-Acetyl Taurine). Aided by sophisticated metabolomics-guided biochemical analysis, the scientists demonstrated that the sulfur-containing amino acid, taurine, and the ethanol metabolite, acetate, are reactants catalyzed by an enzyme to form NAT.

The experimental protocol involved feeding mice food containing significant amounts of ethanol, for a period of three weeks. Samples of urine were collected and components separated by liquid chromatography. The samples were then identified using a mass spectrometer and a computer with analytic software.

The results revealed a new ethanol metabolite, NAT. Concurrent with the increase in NAT they found a corresponding decrease in the levels of taurine in liver and serum. The authors were aware of previous studies showing that feeding mice supplemental taurine along with ethanol largely prevents ethanol-induced liver toxicity. They also mention previous reports supporting high levels of acetate as being the probable cause of the headache associated with excess alcohol consumption.

They speculate that the formation of NAT may be an important reaction in maintaining acetate homeostasis in body fluids. High levels of acetate in body fluids is associated with liver disease and the development of atherosclerosis and other diseases. Maintaining adequate levels of taurine is important for health, and an indicator of antioxidant status, because antioxidants such as cysteine are involved in the synthesis of taurine.

Read abstract Here

This Research Update column highlights articles related to recent scientific inquiry into the process of human aging. It is not intended to promote any specific ingredient, regimen, or use and should not be construed as evidence of the safety, effectiveness, or intended uses of the Juvenon product. The Juvenon label should be consulted for intended uses and appropriate directions for use of the product.