Hangovers: What the Hell Are They? And What Can You Do About Them?
Last night: you were having such a great time. Good friends, fun atmosphere. Another drink won’t hurt. Let’s keep this party going! The next morning: uh oh. We’ve all been there, done that. P.G. Wodehouse once described a hangover like this: “I sat up in bed with that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you’re going to die in about five minutes.” Sound familiar? There’s the crawling-through-the-desert dry mouth, the body fatigue, the pounding headache, the nausea. The room may be spinning, hands may be shaking, eyes bloodshot. You are just not in a good place. Why did you let this happen again? It might not be totally your fault. According to the Mayo Clinic, for some people a single drink may be enough to trigger a hangover. For a lucky few, hangovers are rare or nonexistent. For most of us, though, hangovers are a result of at least three drinks over the span of an evening. Where do they come from? More importantly, what can we do about them now that they're here?
Many factors play into the development of a hangover. Heavy drinking results in increased urination, which leads to dehydration. This dehydration is the primary cause of the thirst and dizziness we experience the morning after. Alcohol may also trigger inflammation, causing an immune response from your body. Drinking increases stomach acid production, leading to stomach irritation. It can cause blood sugar levels to drop, causing weakness and shakiness, and blood vessels to expand, causing headaches. Richard Stephens, a professor of psychology at Keele University, explained to Atlantic Magazine that your body produces an enzyme when you drink that breaks the alcohol down. Ethanol in the drink is the first alcohol to be metabolized, and once it is fully broken down, you start to feel sober. Then the body begins breaking down another alcohol in the drink, methanol. This alcohol breaks down into toxic metabolites, formaldehyde and formic acid. Poisons. Not enough to kill you, but enough to make you feel ill. Thus, the dreaded hangover.
Other ingredients in a drink called congeners also contribute to hangovers. Congeners give alcohols their color and add flavor. Generally speaking, darker alcohols like red wine, bourbon, scotch, and brandy are higher in congeners than lighter colored drinks, like pale ales, gin, vodka, and white wine. The higher the congener content, the more likelihood you will suffer hangovers. Thus, the old advice, stick to lighter colored drinks to avoid hangovers, seems to have some scientific basis.
Ever since humans first experienced the high of alcohol consumption and the low of the morning after, the search has been on for the cure for the hangover. Sadly, most cures fall into the “ineffective” category. If you know you are going out for a night of merriment, eating beforehand helps. An empty stomach will absorb alcohol much faster than a full one. You can try to sleep longer than normal afterward, in effect choosing unconsciousness during the worst phase of the hangover. You can avoid other drugs during your drinking festivities, especially smoking, which may worsen the morning misery. You can drink slowly (it’s a marathon, not a sprint!). You can drink a lot of water in between drinks. Truly though, only time will cure a hangover. To relieve your hangover symptoms, the usual remedies apply: drink water and/or sports drinks (for the electrolytes) to rehydrate, take an Advil or Tylenol for your headache (careful though: Advil can further upset your stomach and Tylenol combined with alcohol can be damaging to the liver), eat some bland food or soup broth to settle the stomach. Then go back to sleep if you can.
Just because hangovers can’t be cured doesn’t stop cures from entering the mythos. Here are some of the so-called cures people still sometimes use.
Hair of the dog.
Having another drink in the morning, the proverbial hair of the dog, has long been touted as the perfect hangover cure. Believe it or not, there is some scientific basis for this. As noted above, the body prefers to break down ethanol first, then methanol. It is the methanol that makes us feel sick. By having another drink, you distract the body from the methanol breakdown, as it goes back to metabolizing the ethanol. The methanol remains intact, thus avoiding the poisonous aftereffect of the methanol breakdown. So by staying drunk, you avoid the hangover. Of course, when you finally do stop drinking, there might be hell to pay.
Some people head to the diner for a good greasy-spoon breakfast as a cure for the morning after. Is there anything to it? Depleted blood sugar contributes to hangover symptoms, and a greasy breakfast would certainly provide lots of carbohydrates to break down into glucose. So probably no harm done, although you may add heartburn to your list of miseries.
As the old TV commercial went, “Plop, plop. Fizz, fizz. Oh what a relief it is.” Maybe. Alka Seltzer contains sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), which can help settle an uneasy stomach. Then again, it contains aspirin, which while helping your headache, can irritate the stomach lining.
Oh, the dilemma! Skip your coffee when you have a hangover and risk enhancing your headache through caffeine withdrawal? Or drink your coffee, which narrows your blood vessels, increasing blood pressure, resulting in…a worse headache. Best solution? Drink a little coffee, wait a while and see how it makes you feel.
Water and sports drinks.
Dehydration certainly makes a bad hangover worse, so drinking lots of fluids, including fluids with electrolytes, can help a little. Try Pedialyte, a beverage used to treat vomiting and diarrhea in children, which is sold in most drug stores. It contains electrolytes and is low in sugar. If your stomach can’t handle gulping more drinks, try Pedialyte freezer pops.
Exercise might make you feel better if you can swing it, but what your body really needs is rest. Sleep in if you can and then take a walk or jog.
Many people swear by a sauna to cure hangovers, sweating out the so-called toxins. This is a terrible idea. First of all, toxins in the body do not get sweated out. They are metabolized by the liver and kidneys and then excreted. Secondly, excessive sweating can cause dangerous drops in blood pressure and heart arythymia. This is a "remedy" to be avoided.
Cures around the World
Drinking being a worldwide pursuit, it is no surprise that “cures” have sometimes taken on a regional flavor:
Otherwise known as dried bull penis. Are you up for it?
South Africa: Sheep’s brain
The brain is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, so maybe they’re on to something there.
Sticking 13 pins in the cork of the bottle supposedly does the trick.
Vietnam: Efferalgan codeine
A combo of ephedrine to wake you and codeine to kill the pain. Completely illegal in the U.S.
Hungary: Brandy with sparrow droppings
Yep. You heard right. Of course the bacteria and parasites in the droppings might cause a problem.
Philippines: Fertilized duck embryo
If you have a spare embryo around, the high levels of cysteine, which aids the liver in metabolism, might help. Might…
Mongolia: Tomato juice with pickled sheep eyes
We hear it's delicious.
The Wild West: Rabbit dropping tea
Steep the droppings in hot water, sip slowly, and pretend to be a cowboy.
A hangover is the biological price we pay for our occasional lapses in judgment. However, if you find yourself constantly hung over, it may just be you have a problem. If so, please, seek help.