What's the cure for hangovers?
A quick history quiz:
The oldest recipe we know of is for:
The correct answer is C.
By 10,000 BC, it's believed, humans were producing beer. And, almost certainly, beer was producing hangovers shortly thereafter. (In fact, farming may have begun so that we'd have a steady supply of for beer making ingredients. And early Greek and Egyptian writings even mention hangovers!)
So, after 12,000 years of alcohol-induced headaches, nausea, exhaustion and bedspins, what have we learned about hangovers?
How alcohol interacts with the body
In the short term:
- Alcohol is a diuretic; it stimulates the body to urinate. As a result of alcohol over-consumption, excess urination can lead to dehydration and electrical imbalance.
- Alcohol is a stomach and intestinal irritant; it can inflame the stomach lining, causing us to feel unsettled.
- Alcohol alters the function of our liver and other organs in such a way that lactic acid build ups and blood sugar levels drop. This is one reason why diabetics are especially sensitive to alcohol.
- Even though alcohol makes us drowsy, the resulting sleep is often shorter and less sound (less time spent in the REM/rapid eye movement stage of sleep). Also, because throat muscles become over-relaxed, snoring often results, which makes our breathing less efficient.
- Alcohol causes our body temperature to fluctuate; lowering our temperature during intoxication and raising it during a hangover.
- Alcohol causes numerous changes in the production of important hormones.
In the long term:
- Chronic alcohol abuse or frequent alcohol binging may contribute to cirrhosis (liver damage), pancreatitis (chronic inflammation of the pancreas) and various types of cancers.
- Women should never drink alcohol when pregnant. It's been shown to produce Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in a small number of children.
Why are hangovers worse for some than others?
Everybody responds differently to alcoholic beverages. Reasons for this may include:
- Genetics: At one stage in the metabolism process, a certain enzyme converts alcohol into acetaldehyde - a potential toxin. Unfortunately, some of us (particularly people of Native American or East Asian decent) tend to accumulate rather than quickly process acetaldehyde. This may explain why some people experience a hangover after just a few drinks.
- The type of alcoholic beverage matters: Drinks that are more pure in alcohol such as gin and vodka are less likely to cause hangovers than are whiskey, brandy, or red wine - all of which are higher in "congeners," such as methanol. Congeners occur either naturally during fermentation or are added for taste, appearance or smell and they appear to play a strong role in contributing to hangovers. This may be why white wine has less of an after effect than red wine, for some people.
- Gender: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that, as a rule, 1 drink for a woman is the equivalent to 2 drinks for a man. So the same amount of alcohol can hit a woman twice as hard.
- Personality types: Some evidence indicates that persons who battle with anger, defensiveness and guilt are more susceptible to suffering hangover symptoms.
- Drinking history: people who drink alcohol regularly may build up a tolerance to it. (Long-term drinking, on the other hand, may result in liver damage, causing a person to become even more sensitive to alcohol.)
What's the cure for a hangover?
While you can find many hangover folk remedies online -- from eating bananas, cabbage or pizza to consuming charcoal tablets or even undergoing kidney dialysis -- only the following have any scientific validity to support them:
- Give it some time: the body should correct itself within 8-24 hours. Hangovers normally begin within hours after a drinking binge has stopped and become more severe as blood alcohol levels continue dropping to zero. (This may support the "Hair of the dog" theory -- where a person consumes alcohol during the symptoms of a hangover. This, practice, however, is NOT recommended. While it may temporarily dull discomfort, consuming more alcohol adds to the existing toxicity and will extend the duration of the hangover.)
- Drink one glass of non-alcoholic beverages between servings of alcohol and lots of hydrating liquids afterwards: Drinking water, fruit juices, or tea will slow down your consumption of alcohol and, perhaps, encourage you to consume less, since you'll get "fuller" faster. It's also the best way to avoid or recover from dehydration. Sports drinks may help replace lost electrolytes and salt.
- Eat fruit or drink fruit juices or a salt-glucose solution: This may provide hydration and decrease overall symptoms.
- Eat bland, complex carbohydrates (breads or crackers): These will raise blood sugar levels and have the potential to decrease nausea.
- Sleep: This will, obviously, address fatigue symptoms.
- Antacids: May relieve nausea.
- Aspirin: Can relieve muscle pain and headaches - but may further upset your stomach. CAUTION: Avoid acetaminophen (such as in Tylenol, Aspirin Free Anacin, etc.). Acetaminophen interferes with the body's ability to metabolize alcohol toxins, increasing the risk of severe liver toxicity/damage.
- A special note about Coffee: A legendary antidote for hangovers, coffee is in fact, a poor choice for most people. If someone normally drinks a lot of coffee, there is no reason to magnify hangover symptoms by throwing caffeine withdrawals into the equation. On the other hand, coffee constricts arteries and is a diuretic, like alcohol, so it can contribute to dehydration.
Not all people respond to alcohol similarly. Some people may experience a hangover after just a few drinks while others can drink heavily with no apparent discomfort. 75% of us, however, will experience a hangover after drinking to the level of intoxication.
Unfortunately, the only certain remedy for a hangover is time. The good news is, remembering the misery of past hangovers may cause you to think twice before overindulging in the future.