True or False: You Can Cure a Hangover
by Jacquelyn Rudis
So you had a blast at the party last night, but the inevitable price you pay the following morning has you wondering, “Is there anything I can do to make this pounding headache, nausea, and exhaustion go away?” Probably not. Just as you can’t sober up by taking a cold shower and having a cup of black coffee, there is no simple remedy for a hangover. However, there are a few steps you can take to make the next “morning-after” more bearable.
Evidence Against the Health Claim
A hangover is your body’s way of telling you it is unhealthy to overindulge. Indeed, an effective treatment for hangovers would undermine our body’s own defense system against drinking too heavily. In any event, it is important to understand how alcohol consumption and hangovers are related.
After you stop drinking, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) begins to drop. Hangover symptoms peak around the time your BAC is zero. Alcohol acts as a diuretic (increases urine output) leading to dehydration and the loss of electrolytes. Although alcohol initially acts as a sedative; drinking actually disrupts your sleep cycle causing you to wake up fatigued. Finally, acetaldehyde, a toxic byproduct produced as your body breaks down alcohol, is responsible for many hangover symptoms.
There is no scientific evidence in support of any method to rid the body of hangover symptoms. However, myths are still out there regarding surefire hangover remedies. Strong black coffee, for example, is a favorite among hangover sufferers who reason that a jolt of caffeine will restore some energy. However, caffeinated beverages, like alcohol, are diuretics and only worsen dehydration!
The modest benefits of acetaminophen (eg, Tylenol) may not be worth the increased risk of liver toxicity that can occur in the presence of alcohol. Ibuprofen and aspirin are safer for the liver, but may worsen any stomach irritation caused by the excesses of the night before.
According to another popular myth, called the “hair of the dog” theory, drinking first thing in the morning will help ease the effects of alcohol withdrawal. Although logical and possibly effective in the short-term, once your brain stops reacting to the new alcohol, the hangover will kick back in. Do not expect to recover by drinking more. The additional alcohol will be metabolized and the unavoidable hangover will return as your BAC drops.
Evidence for the Health Claim
Although there is no way to reliably reverse a hangover once it is hammering away at your head, you may be able to lessen its severity by planning ahead. Dr. Robert Swift and Dena Davidson’s article, “Alcohol Hangover–Mechanism and Mediators,” provides a comprehensive, scientific review of common hangover remedies.
One strategy for lessening the potential effects of intoxication is eating before you drink. Having food in your system will absorb some of the alcohol so that it doesn’t go directly into the bloodstream, and may protect your stomach from the irritation caused by alcohol. Fatty foods take the longest to digest, so if you are more concerned about the short-term health consequences (your potential hangover) than the long-term health effects (clogged arteries), go for that extra slice of greasy pizza!
Since your liver can only efficiently process one standard-sized alcoholic drink per hour, spreading your drinking out over the course of the night can be helpful. (In general, men can process more alcohol per hour than women.) Hydration is also a key factor because alcohol acts as a diuretic. Your body needs more and more fluids as the night goes on. Drinking a glass of water or juice between each alcoholic drink will help keep you hydrated and moderate the rate of your alcohol intake. Drinking a large glass of water before going to sleep will also help rehydrate you, and juice or Gatorade will restore some of the electrolytes you lost over the course of the night.
Finally, the type of alcohol you drink may affect the intensity of your hangover. Drinks that contain large amounts of compounds called congeners may increase hangover symptoms. Clear beverages like vodka, gin, and white wine contain less congeners than darker drinks like brandy, whisky, rum, and red wine.
Researchers have investigated certain supplements and drugs for their effectiveness against hangover symptoms, such as antacids, prostaglandin inhibitors (like ibuprofen and aspirin), and B vitamins. Tolfenamic acid (a prostaglandin inhibitor) and vitamin B6, for example, have been shown to be of modest help, particularly when taken while drinking or before going to sleep, as opposed to the next morning. Not enough studies have been done, however, to make a firm recommendation.
Hangovers are nature’s way of telling you that you had too much to drink. To date, researchers haven’t figured out any way to “cure” a hangover, although research suggests that taking precautionary measures before and during the party may help reduce symptoms later. Until hangovers can be effectively treated (if ever), why not take the hint, and protect your body before symptoms arise by drinking responsibly!
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New year, old myths, new fatalities. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at http://niaaa.aerie.com/factsheet/pdf/NIAAAFactSheet.pdf . Accessed June 16, 2006
Swift R, Davidson D. Alcohol hangover: mechanisms and mediators. Health & Research World . 1998;22(1):54-60. Available at http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/54-60.pdf . Accessed November 10, 2008.
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