If you’re reading this article, we’ll assume you don’t need a lecture on the evils of alcohol. Responsible drinking is often the result of 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 hours. 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 metabolizes the alcohol, and the by-products are excreted in the urine by the kidneys.
Alcohol is metabolized by the liver using two enzymes, in two steps: 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. The by-products are excreted by the kidneys, which 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.
How To Avoid A Hangover
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.
Remain hydrated: Drinking water prior to, during, and after alcohol consumption is critical to maintaining fluid balance in your body. Before retiring, it’s a good idea to drink at least 16 oz. of water.
Don’t drink on an empty stomach: Solid food in your stomach will slow down the absorption process of alcohol.
Drink beer instead of hard liquor or wine: The alcohol content is lower, and the increased volume will make you feel full.
Drink something with fewer congeners: 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, while bourbon has quite a bit. Red wine has more than white wine. Cheap booze usually has more than expensive name brands.
Don’t mix alcohol: Mixing presents different types of congeners to our system and we have a difficult time processing them.
Quit drinking early in the evening: This allows more time to metabolize the alcohol before the morning alarm sounds. Of course, this requires strong will power, which can be difficult, despite the best of intentions.
Avoid aspirin, Tylenol, ibuprofen, etc.: These can be very irritating to your stomach with alcohol on board.
How to Lessen Hangover Symptoms
Lets say you’ve ignored the advice above. You wake up, roll over in your bed, turn off the alarm, and notice that you feel nauseous, headachy and out of sorts. Or you wake up half-clothed in your closet, 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.
Worst case scenario: If you have to work, attend class or in any way interact with others in a semi-responsible way, rule number one 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.
Drink water: 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, 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.
Take pain medication: 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.
Sleep it off: 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.
Eat: 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 the caffeine will also help with vessel constriction. If you’re used to a morning coffee, it may help.
Take your vitamins: B vitamin complex and cysteine may also help with alcohol metabolism, and if they’re handy, now’s the time to take them.
Exercise: Although this one is controversial. Once the symptoms begin to abate and you can move around comfortably, mild physical exertion may help sweat out the evil. Of course, it can also cause a relapse, which could be very distressing.
Avoid the hair of the dog: It should go without saying, but don’t drink more! It may help initially, but you will pay the piper eventually.
It’s normal to feel regret, remorse, and embarrassment during a hangover. You will probably swear off drinking for the rest of your life if it meant 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.”
If you find yourself referring to this information on a regular basis, it might be time to evaluate your drinking habits.