A hangover is relatively easy to avoid – by not drinking too much!
But if you followed that advice you wouldn’t have read past the headline. We tell ourselves we won’t drink too much, but then we have a couple and our cognitive abilities are impaired enough to forget the miseries of the previous hangover – the headaches, nausea, dizziness, dehydration – and off we go.
Being creatures seemingly hard-wired for immediate gratification, we humans would also prefer it if we never had to suffer for this behavior. Unfortunately, life isn’t that convenient.
The most legendary hangover “cure” is undoubtedly the “hair of the dog”. The term apparently derives from “a hair of the dog that bit you”, based on the equally unlikely notion that if you were bitten by a rabid dog you could avoid rabies by rubbing its hair on the wound.
A Bloody Mary (vodka and tomato juice) usually tops of the list of “hair of the dog” cocktails, and lots of people swear by it, often with a raw egg mixed in. The theory is that such concoctions divert your body from processing the toxic compounds produced by metabolizing alcohol – back to processing actual alcohol. If this is true, it suggests the booze is only delaying, rather than alleviating, the symptoms. Maybe the alcohol just numbs the pain – but that dog will still come back to bite you.
There are countless other recommended hangover remedies, including bananas, cabbage, charcoal tablets, eggs, exercise, fresh air, fruit juice, beef broth, barley grass, icepacks, bacon and eggs, peanut butter, and yeast extracts on toast. There’s even one for kidney dialysis!
But while there are tens of thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles on the effects of alcohol on the brain and body, there aren’t many that have looked at the evidence for hangover cures. As you can imagine, any clinical hangover trial large enough to be scientifically valid would be incredibly expensive, difficult to fund and possibly less than ethical.
“The paucity of randomized controlled trials is in stark contrast to the plethora of ‘hangover cures’ marketed on the Internet,” note the authors of a study published in the British Medical Journal. They found only eight trials that were good enough to be included in the study, which looked at the conventional drug-based treatments (beta blockers, an anti nausea-drug, a drug used to treat migraines and fructose or glucose), and dietary supplements such as borage, artichoke, prickly pear and a yeast-based preparation. They found that “no compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover. The most effective way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol induced hangover is to practice abstinence or moderation.”
As if you didn’t know that. The sad truth is that there is no miracle cure for hangovers. Alcohol is a diuretic (something that increases the loss of fluid and salt from the body) that causes dehydration. Drinking a lot of fluid will help – which will be more effective before you go to sleep rather than the morning after. Sleep will help. And time. And maybe an over-the-counter pain killer or two.
As for the emotional and psychological consequences of a big night out, the news is even worse. The renowned author and drinker Kingsley Amis knew this. In his book Everyday Drinking he included an entire chapter on hangovers, including what he called the “metaphysical hangover” – the fear, guilt, shame, self-recrimination and self-loathing that can descend the morning after.
"Start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover,” he writes. “You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilt milk."
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