Alcohol and the Chemistry of Hangovers

Over the past two years, there’s one thing that I’ve learned about college students— they like to drink. Weekend parties are a normal part of college social life, and they often involve alcohol. At the end of a stressful week, a night out with friends can be a great way to relax and have fun. However, drinking is often taken too far, leaving students with a horrible hangover to wake up to the next morning. This alcohol related topic got me thinking— what causes a hangover in the first place? After doing some research, it became evident that there are many factors involved. Many chemical reactions are taking place within a person’s body while breaking down alcoholic beverages.

After asking a few college students around campus, it became evident that a large percentage of people view hangovers as a direct result of dehydration. However, this is not completely the case. On the website Compound Interest, I found an interesting article titled The Chemistry of a Hangover. The article pointed out some factors that are believed to contribute to hangovers. Up first is in fact dehydration, which is caused by alcohol being a diuretic, decreasing the release of the anti-diuretic hormone. To my own surprise, dehydration was not singled out as the main culprit, as research shows drinking lots of water does not always alleviate the severity of a hangover. The same article went on to show evidence that suggests acetaldehyde, produced by the breakdown of alcohol, could also be linked to hangovers. Moreover, congeners, such as methanol and tannins, have also been found to increase the severity of a hangover. When broken down in the body, these chemical compounds form toxic byproducts such as formaldehyde and formic acid.

With this thought in mind, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that alcoholic beverages that contain more congeners could be linked to causing more severe hangovers? After doing some more research, I came across another article on the website Compound Interest titled The Chemistry of Red Wine. The article focused on the different factors that contribute to a wine’s color, flavor, and potential health benefits. Anthocyanins, found in the skin of grapes, determine the acidity of a particular wine. This attribute can both be seen in the color and as well as tasted. A stronger acid leads to a lower pH, and a strong variation in color. Furthermore, flavan-3-ols have been found to determine the bitterness of a wine, which is associated both with the alcohol and antioxidant levels. Tannins in the wine react with saliva to form a precipitate, which is linked to the sensation of dryness that a wine exhibits. Thus, a higher tannin level can both be linked to the dryness of a wine as well as its ability to cause a hangover.

When considering everything that might possibly lead to a hangover, there are so many factors to account for! Not only are there countless chemical reactions going on inside your body during the consumption of an alcoholic beverage, but there are a myriad of others during its production. During the aging process of red wine alone, exact specifications of color and flavor are determined by minute differences in the ratios of chemical compounds contained. Not only does this increase my appreciation for chemical reactions, but it also helps me realize the scale of the number of reactions that are constantly going on all around us in nature. So next time when you’re drinking a glass of your favorite beverage, remember the countless chemical reactions that had to go correctly for it to taste and look the way it does. When you see a drunken college student stumble across campus, you can ask yourself what they were drinking and wonder how that will determine how they feel the next morning.

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Becoming an Effective Presenter

What defines an effective presentation? Going into the Chemistry Matters Symposium, I asked myself this very question. There are many factors to consider when preparing to give a presentation. Will I be an effective speaker? What will the formatting be? Will the audience be able to understand the ideas trying to be conveyed or will they find them confusing? How in the world will I ever be able to fit all of this information into a five minute presentation? After taking these thoughts into consideration, I quickly realized that giving an academic presentation is not as easy as I had remembered. Public speaking in general takes not only prior planning, but also many instances of practice in order to become well versed and effective in giving a presentation. With that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed both giving a presentation during the Chemistry Matters Symposium, as well as hearing from other peers, learning from them, and diving a little deeper into the world of chemistry.

After listening to a dozen presentations over the course of a few hours, I definitely felt as if some were better than others. For instance, the first presentation given focused on the chemistry of chocolate. Personally, I might have been a little biased since I am a huge chocolate fan, but nonetheless, I was immediately engaged by the speaker. Her presentation skills were very strong and effective in grabbing my attention. It can be easy when giving a presentation to lose eye contact or look down at notes— something I have fallen victim to myself— but during this particular presentation, I did not notice any instances of the speaker losing connection with the audience whatsoever. Furthermore, the layout of the powerpoint and its content were relevant to the topic at hand, further aiding in the effectiveness of the presentation. All in all, I really enjoyed learning about how a seemingly simple and everyday food can contain so much chemistry.

Another one of my personal favorite presentations was titled “Sticky Situations”, and covered the chemistry behind what enables certain amphibians and insects to “stick” to objects. In my opinion, this presentation was the most in depth with relation to chemistry connections. The fact that the topics being presented were relatable to the audience is what made it an even more effective presentation. As someone who had never learned almost anything about adhesive geckos, I found it very helpful that the speaker went at a relatively moderate pace while also covering all of the bases in a short time frame.

Moving forward, I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the chemistry behind marathon running and what it means to “hit the wall”. Running and exercise are a passion of mine, so again, I was pleased to be able to make a connection between chemistry and my own personal daily life. The biggest takeaways from this presentation were that the speaker was very well versed, they used great vocal projection, and their topic was concise and to the point. What I liked the most was how I was able to make a direct connection between ideas within the presentation and what we are learning in chemistry this semester.

Overall, the Chemistry Matters Symposium taught me a couple of different lessons. First, I feel like I now have a better sense of what it takes to give an effective presentation. Not only did the symposium give me the opportunity to practice my presentation skills personally, but it also allowed me to observe others and take their strengths and weaknesses into account. Furthermore, this experience has helped reaffirm my interest in chemistry by providing connections to real-world, everyday topics that leave me wanting to learn more!

The “Chemical-Free” Controversy

The label “chemical-free” is often found on consumer products, but the fact of the matter is that this is not appropriate for what marketers are usually trying to convey. Often, producers are trying to get the point across that their product does not contain certain unwanted chemical compounds. Such chemicals are often found to be harmful to consumer health, and thus are not preferable for use by the public. Furthermore, scientific advancements have recently seemed to create an upward trend in the production of more organic and “chemical-free” products. However, marketers should reconsider labeling their products this way, since it is not completely accurate. Are there not still chemicals present in these “chemical free” products?

In order to research this point further, I analyzed a “chemical-free” sunscreen made by the company Burt’s Bees. Personally, I am a big fan of many of the company’s products— all of which seem to be of higher quality than generic ones. As listed on the bottle, some of the ingredients contained within the sunscreen are titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and hemp seed oil— claiming to all provide “natural protection”. Indeed, the sunscreen uses far less chemicals than many leading competitors, and the ones that they do use claim to be better for consumer health. This could be Burt’s Bees’ reasoning for labeling their product as “chemical-free”. Although, last time I checked, ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are chemical compounds. As a chemistry student who is learning about such compounds, the fact that marketers would label any of their products as “chemical-free” is distressing. An alternative approach should instead be made by marketers who have “chemical-free” products.

With a wide variety of products on the market that have been called chemical-free, there is no one single alternative label that can be made. Instead, marketers should label their products differently based on the specific changes they have made from other competing products. For instance, with the rise in pesticides being used on agricultural goods, marketers should, and often do, use the label “organic” on food that has been grown without the use of such chemicals. On the other hand, a product like Burt’s Bees sunscreen cannot simply be labeled organic, but instead should have labels such as “carcinogen-free”, “toxic-chemical-free”, or “all natural chemicals used”. The labeling of products should be on a case to case basis that takes the criteria of consumer usage types— topical, edible, etc.— into effect, but nonetheless, should use the appropriate wording so as to not be misleading.

All in all, marketers should stray away from using labels such as “chemical-free” on consumer products. By doing so, they are not only being misleading, but are also providing false information. Chemical compounds exist in every consumer product, so it is literally impossible for them to be chemical-free. Instead, marketers should consider alternative labels in order to correctly and appropriately inform their buyers. By doing so, marketers would also help contribute to a more educated world in the areas of chemistry and science— a very positive aspect indeed.

About Me

Hello, my name is Christian Apel and I am currently a sophomore at Centre College. I am a physics major, a part of the cross country and track teams, and a member of the orchestra where I play clarinet. Some of my other interests are the outdoors and photography. I grew up in the Ohio Valley about 45 minutes east of Louisville.

Why am I taking Chemistry 131? Not only is chemistry a huge part of physics and a requirement for the major, but it is also a huge interest of mine. I have always loved learning about how the world works around me and problem solving, so naturally chemistry and the math and sciences are my favorite area of study. I look forward to what this class has to offer and the semester ahead!