Let’s talk about a possibly unpleasant topic. We’ll start with a purely hypothetical situation. Suppose you went out on New Year’s Eve, enjoyed a few too many delicious beverages, and now, the next morning, you’re encountering some unpleasant after effects. You’re likely a bit nauseous, exceedingly thirsty, seriously pissed off about the bright lights and much too loud sounds surrounding you, and to top things off it feels like the fireworks from last night are all going off in your head ceaselessly. You, my friend, have a hangover.
The good news is that since the above scenario was purely hypothetical I’m sure you’re all rested, cheery and eager to hear the details of what a hangover is and how you can fight it. A hangover is a mix of physical symptoms that are the result of over consumption of alcohol. According to Wikipedia some of the most common symptoms of a hangover are “headache, nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, lethargy, dysphoria, and thirst.” Why you experience these unpleasantries is, however, still a bit of a mystery. There are a number of possible causes and in all likelihood the true cause is a combination of some or all of them.
We’ll start with dehydration. Ethanol is a mild diuretic. The main cause for this diuretic effect is ethanol’s ability to block ADH in the kidneys. Once ADH is blocked the porosity of the kidney wall decreases and less water is reabsorbed in to the body causing dehydration to set in. Take a peek at Buzz by Stephen Braun if you’re interested in more details. A snippet of the book can be found here on Google Books.
As if the dehydration wasn’t enough there’s also the fact that ethanol, when metabolized, actually becomes more toxic to the body. When the liver metabolizes ethanol it is broken down into acetaldehyde, which will then be further metabolized in to acetic acid. Acetaldehyde is considerably more toxic to our bodies than ethanol alone and is thought to be the other main cause of hangovers. Thankfully acetaldehyde only hangs around our body for a relatively short time before it is further broken down into acetic acid. There are, however, some unlucky folks who metabolize acetaldehyde very slowly and as a result experience severe hangover symptoms.
Okay, enough of the bad stuff, what can you do to avoid a hangover and fight one once its there? The web is full of hangover cures and preventative measures. Wikipedia sums up both the good and bad remedies and there is another great article over at Lifescript that details ten hangover cures and why they work. Also, if you’re really wondering what people think you can read some of the responses from the hive mind over at MetaFilter.com.
Let’s start with avoiding the hangover in the first place. Since ethanol is a diuretic you need to stay very well hydrated when drinking. A good rule of thumb is to try to drink one glass of water for each cocktail you consume. Without question you’ll need to pee a lot, but you’ll stay better hydrated which should help to eliminate the hangover or at least shorten it.
Eating is another good plan. The vitamins will help keep your body operating at peak efficiency and if you consume foods that contain cysteine, like eggs, you’ll get a further boost in converting the toxic acetaldehyde into harmless acetic acid. So, good news, that late night drunken trip to Denny’s is actually beneficial after all.
Finally some thoughts on reducing the duration of a hangover that’s already set in. The two remedies listed above apply to fighting a hangover as well. Drink a lot of water and consume foods that are going to provide a lot of carbohydrates and proteins while being easy on your upset stomach. Scrambled eggs and toast should fit the bill nicely. Pain killers can be good for fighting body and head aches, but be careful since some of them can cause nausea. Finally, make sure you get vitamins and minerals back into your system. Since you’ve been peeing more than usual (diuretic effects of alcohol and all) you’ve lost a lot more minerals than you usually would. Pop a multivitamin or drink some electrolyte drinks to help bring your levels back to where they should be.
Sadly, the cure that is guaranteed to work is time. Wait out the pain and you’ll be back to your normal self in no time. I hope this write up finds you without a hangover, but in the unfortunate event that you were forced to consume too much last night hopefully the information here will get you back on your feet as quickly as possible.