If you’re reading this article we’ll make the assumption that you don’t need a lecture on the evils of alcohol. Responsible drinking often results from learning from our mistakes and indiscretions. A morning-after hangover can be a powerful teacher and lessons learned can stick with us for at least..24 hrs. Some of us need more reinforcement than others and that ol’ demon rum is more than happy to oblige. All too often a night of intemperate imbibing is followed by a period of relative incapacitation, physical misery and mental anguish. Welcome to the reality of a hangover!
Before we look at how to cure a hangover, let’s take a look at the physiology of what causes a hangover in the first place. As alcohol (ethanol) is consumed it passes from our stomach into our small intestine where it is absorbed into the blood stream. This affects our brain and gives us pleasurable sensations in that we feel relaxed and lose some of our inhibitions. There’s no way of avoiding it— alcohol is a toxin and our bodies process it and remove it from our systems. The liver is the organ which metabolizes the alcohol and the by-products are excreted in the urine by the kidneys.
Alcohol is metabolized in two steps by the liver using two enzymes: alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase. The first enzyme converts alcohol into a very toxic substance called acetaldehyde. This makes us feel sick and is one of the three causes of hangover symptoms. A second cause is dehydration. As the by-products are excreted by the kidneys this requires fluid and unless we stay hydrated, this fluid is drawn from our body’s reserves. The third cause of symptoms is congeners. These are chemical substances present in varying amounts in different types of hard liquor, wine and beer. They are responsible for the different characteristics of these types of drink. They play an important role in the development of headaches. Enough of the physiology, now let’s consider how to prevent one of these nasty episodes. The only sure-fire method of prevention is the obvious—abstinence. However, if that was an option you would be doing something other than reading this article. There are several ways to avoid a hangover or at least lessen its symptoms.
The most important is to remain hydrated. Drinking water prior to, during and after drinking alcohol is critical to maintaining adequate fluid balance in your body. Before retiring it’s a good idea to drink at least 16oz.of water.
Have some solid food in your stomach before drinking. This will slow down the absorption process of alcohol.
Consider drinking beer instead of hard liquor or wine. The alcohol content is lower and the increased volume will make you feel full.
As mentioned, congeners are a factor in causing hangovers. The amount of congeners varies with different types of alcoholic drinks. Vodka has very few congeners and bourbon has quite a bit. Red wine has more than white wine. Cheap booze usually has more than expensive name brands.
Mixing different types of drinks can also be a problem. This presents different types of congeners to our system and we have a difficult time processing them.
Consider quitting drinking early in the evening. This allows more time to metabolize the alcohol before the morning alarm sounds. Of course this requires a little bit of will power and in spite of best intentions can be difficult.
Avoid aspirin, Tylenol, ibuprofen and similar medications before retiring. These can be very irritating to your stomach with alcohol on board.
If we assume that you’ve either ignored all this advice or that it’s been less than effective what can you do the next morning when the moment of truth has arrived? This can range from rolling over in your bed, turning off the alarm and noticing that you feel nauseous, headachy and out of sorts to awakening half-clothed in your closet and wondering why someone is banging on your head with a baseball bat. The only thing that makes you move from this position is the smell of vomit on the carpet and the realization that you need to get into the bathroom pronto.
Let’s assume the worst case scenario. If you have to work, attend class or in any way interact with others in a semi-responsible way rule #1 is: CALL IN SICK!! This cannot be overemphasized. Make up any excuse you can . If you think you feel miserable, it’s a sure thing that you look even worse. A corollary to this is that hangovers are not a team sport. You want to battle this monster alone.
If not too nauseous begin hydrating as soon as you can. Try drinking water, ginger ale, Gatorade, etc. If you feel like you’re going to vomit by all means make a pilgrimage to the porcelain temple. In most instances this will help settle your stomach . You might be able to get some Pepto Bismol or antacid down and begin hydrating.
Once your stomach is settled it’s time to tackle the headache. In our humble opinion ibuprofen is the medication of choice, but this is a matter of personal preference.
If time allows, catching a short nap in a darkened, quiet room with an ice bag or cold compress on your forehead can work wonders. The cold compress helps constrict the vessels in your head and reduce the headache.
As soon as the headache and nausea are under control try to eat something. Some suggestions include soup and crackers, jello, juice, etc. Again it’s a matter of personal preference. Caffeinated coffee and cola drinks are an area of controversy. These may upset your stomach but on the other hand the caffeine will assist with vessel constriction. If you’re used to a morning coffee, it may help.
A B complex vitamin and cysteine may also help with alcohol metabolism and if they’re handy now’s the time to take them.
Exercise is also controversial during an assault on a hangover. Once the symptoms begin to abate and you can move around comfortably, mild physical exertion may help sweat out the evil humors. Of course it can also cause a relapse and this could be very distressing.
Avoid drinking additional alcohol (the hair of the dog). This may help initially, but eventually you will pay the piper.
It’s normal during a hangover to feel regret, remorse and embarrassment. You will probably swear off drinking for the rest of your life and promise your first-born if you could just feel better. Don’t worry-this is normal. Remember that we learn from our mistakes. As W.R. Inge said: “Experience is a good teacher, but her fees are very high.” As a final note: If you find yourself referring to this information on a regular basis, it might be time to evaluate your drinking habits.