Taming the hangover

By the time the upcoming weekend is over, a certain percentage of the people reading this post (although a very small percentage, I hope) will probably experience the miserable symptoms of a hangover.

Hangovers can happen all year long, but they’re often more likely around the holidays, when the partying and the eggnog can sometimes flow a little too freely.

What exactly is a hangover? The Mayo Clinic offers this rather understated definition: "A hangover is a group of unpleasant signs and symptoms that can develop after drinking too much alcohol." (The term itself appears to have originated in the 1800s as a descriptor for something unfinished or left over. In the early 1900s it also started to be applied to the after-effects of too much drinking.)

Although the hangover is a common experience, surprisingly few studies have scientifically addressed the mechanisms of hangover or evaluated how to treat it. Here’s what we do know, however:

The symptoms of a hangover – dehydration, headache, grogginess, fatigue, nausea – are the body’s physiological response to alcohol itself, as well as to the body’s efforts to process alcohol and counteract its impact on the central nervous system.

The dry, cottony mouth? That’s due to the diuretic effect of alcohol, which can lead to thirst, dehydration and dizziness. Nausea (or, worse yet, vomiting)? Alcohol can irritate the lining of the stomach and increase stomach acid production; it also delays emptying of the stomach, with predictable consequences. Headache? This is usually due to alcohol-induced dilation of the blood vessels.

Feeling groggy and exhausted is another common symptom. Although having a few drinks can feel stimulating to many people, alcohol is in reality a depressant. Eventually the drinker will feel sleepy, but he or she won’t sleep well, hence the fatigue that often comes after having a few drinks too many. Staying up too late or overdoing it on the dance floor can add to the fatigue.

Several risk factors appear to contribute to the severity of a hangover. The Mayo Clinic explains how this works:

Anyone who drinks alcohol can experience a hangover, but some people are more susceptible to hangover than are others. A genetic variation that affects the way alcohol is metabolized may make some people flush, sweat or become ill after drinking even a small amount of alcohol. Research hasn’t clearly shown whether light drinkers or heavy drinkers are more likely to experience hangovers.

Factors that may make a hangover more likely include: drinking on an empty stomach; using other drugs, such as nicotine, along with alcohol; having a family history of alcoholism; drinking darker colored alcoholic beverages; drinking champagne or alcohol mixed with carbonated beverages.

A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine some years back suggested that extra fluids, vitamin B6 and aspirin or ibuprofen can relieve hangover symptoms. There’s no lack of home remedies for hangovers. Drinking sauerkraut juice (!!) is one I’ve heard; so is black coffee with lemon juice. The only sure cure, however, according to the experts, is time and rest.

An even better remedy: Try to avoid getting hung over in the first place. This means drinking in moderation (or not at all), taking it slowly and not drinking on an empty stomach. In the case of the hangover, it seems prevention is usually the best medicine of all.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons