Common Hangover

My Rouses Everyday, January | February 2018

I have some terrific news to report from the world of hangover research: Science has discovered a cure! Actually, two cures:

  1. Don’t start drinking.
  2. Don’t stop drinking.

This may not be particularly useful news, neither to those who like a good drink, sometimes more than one, nor to those whose resolve to drink moderately is annually tested during the holiday season. Sadly, the root causes and proven cures of hangovers remain somewhat elusive. Few institutions have been eager to pull out checkbooks to fund major studies that get to the bottom of “the cold grey dawn of the morning after.” You made your bed, the potential funders say, and you can lie in it. If you don’t want a hangover, don’t drink, or at the very least be less indulgent of your appetites. As a result, the unrespected and underfunded hangover cure industry remains more closely related to phrenology and other quack sciences than to modern research.

Science has, however, arrived at some conclusions. First and foremost: Hangovers appear to involve whole constellation of events, none pleasant, that occur in your body simultaneously while you are imbibing. This makes it both difficult to bear and vexing to cure.

Here’s what we do know, if much simplified: Hangovers involve a trinity of causes. These are dehydration, withdrawal and toxins.

Dehydration stems from the fact that drinking alcohol leads to more output than input. Alcohol can inhibit the release of a certain hormone from your pituitary gland. This hormone, in turn, prevents your kidneys from reabsorbing water into your system. This means liquids you drink get diverted directly to the bladder, causing you to lose fluids at a much more rapid rate.

Here’s an interesting figure from a 1986 study: About four drinks — or 50 grams of alcohol in 250 ml of water — can cause you to eliminate 600 to 1000 ml of water, so as much as a quart. That means you’re voiding at least twice your intake, and possibly up to four times that. This effect means you’ll definitely experience dehydration the following morning that can lead to a headache and feelings of dizziness, not to mention cottonmouth and acute thirst.

Withdrawal is somewhat more controversial. The tremors, rapid heartbeat and general jitteriness mimic withdrawal symptoms, but some experts insist that recovery from a single night of excess is not the same as long-term bingeing. Yet it appears that the mechanism triggering these symptoms are the same. Your nerve cell membranes have two types of receptors — one that inhibits nervous system activity, and one that excites it. Usually these are in balance … until alcohol comes visiting. Then, the excitable nerve cell membranes are fired up, while the inhibitors are suppressed. As the effects of alcohol wear off, it takes time to get your body back into equilibrium. The result is the tremors and sweating — your body has been tricked by drink into remaining in overdrive.

The production of toxins is all the more complicated. Among the many things that occur after you down a drink is that the alcohol is slowly broken down by your body into other compounds. One of these is acetaldehyde, which has a tendency to run amok — combining with proteins already in your system and forming other toxins that can lead to sweating, nausea and vomiting. And there’s also methanol — a subset of alcohol more prevalent in heavier spirits, like whiskey and brandies, and less so in lighter liquors like vodka. This substance breaks down into formaldehyde, which is another thing that can course around your system and cause mischief.

While modern science has failed to come up with a reasonable cure for the common hangover, folk remedies have been happy to take up the slack — whether it’s a greasy burger or a cold shower or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (yes, it’s a thing). The secret cures get passed down through generations — and from one office mate to the next.

Despite its disdain for serious hangover research, science has concluded that some things are more helpful in speeding recovery. Sodium apparently helps, as do hot spices, along with dense food to settle the stomach. And don’t forget water or some electrolyte drink that can offset dehydration. Also, perhaps counterintuitively, a small bit of alcohol. Scientific theory supports the “hair of the dog” remedy — a new incursion of alcohol into the system is thought to interfere with the conversion of last night’s alcohol into those disagreeable toxins mentioned above, at least for a time. It buys you some temporary relief, although at longer-term expense.

o it turns out that the most enduring of folk remedies — the Bloody Mary — might actually have some science to validate it. It contains sodium and the comforting density of tomato juice. There’s also water in the juice, a bit of spiciness and vodka to scare away the darkness left in the dreary residue of the previous night. And it allows you a moment of rest in the comforting shade of a celery stalk while you contemplate your recent failure to moderate, as well as a bit of time to formulate a firm resolution to never, ever overindulge again.