This piece originally appeared on Fix.com.
For those of you who have ever had a bad hangover – that dreaded combination of headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and general irritability – after a night of overindulgence (don’t worry, we’re not judging), the only solace you’ve likely had is that you’re in good company. American humorist and actor Robert Charles Benchley probably best summed up our collective experience with hangovers when he said, “The only cure for a real hangover is death.”
Mankind has probably been searching for a hangover cure since the discovery of alcoholic fermentation. Despite having a few centuries under our belts to try and figure this one out, it will probably come as little surprise (and even less comfort) to know that we’ve yet to develop a surefire hangover cure that is guaranteed to work for everyone.
But human beings are nothing if not stubbornly persistent in their desire to have their cake (booze) and eat it, too (sans hangover). As a result, science has been making some promising – and fascinating – headway into understanding why we get hangovers, what drinks are more likely to cause them, and what we can do to help prevent them, or lessen their impact. Here are some interesting insights about hangovers that are the result, not of homegrown superstitions, but of bona fide scientific study.
Not that you’ll ever need it, right?
In hundreds of years, no one has pinpointed a simple cause for hangovers (well, beyond the fact that they result from drinking “too much” alcohol).
What we have learned is that consuming alcohol creates some fairly complex chemical reactions in our bodies. According to a Danish study, we may respond differently to those reactions based on age (with those over forty experiencing fewer hangovers due to less intense drinking). Generally, people with higher body weight (usually men) can drink more alcohol than those with lower body weight (usually women) before feeling the impacts of a hangover.
While the exact causes are still debatable, various scientific studies have narrowed down some of the complex chemical interactions responsible for hangovers. In summary, hangover symptoms are thought to result from toxin build-up (acetaldehyde, which is created when the body absorbs alcohol), dehydration (alcohol is a diuretic), reactions to chemical by-products of fermentation (called congeners), and individual genetics (specifically, your body’s alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes)
Hangover Symptoms – the Science
When battling hangovers, it’s best to know your enemy. That’s where science comes in!
The thirst, dizziness, and light-headedness often felt after a bout of drinking are thought to be the result of dehydration. Since alcohol is a diuretic, it promotes urine production, which means your body is losing more water when you drink. If you don’t replenish that water (and who’s thinking about water when they’re having a great cocktail?), you can become dehydrated.
Based on a study from Seoul, South Korea, hangover headaches, irritation, muscle aches, and general fatigue are thought to be the result of cytokines, which our bodies produce to trigger inflammatory responses to infections. Alcohol consumption can trigger cytokine release, giving you fever-like symptoms.
With particularly bad hangovers, you might also experience nausea and sweating. These nasty symptoms are thought to be the result of your body’s reaction to acetaldehyde, a toxin produced when your body processes alcohol. According to research done by University of California and The Scripps Research Institute (among others), we vary in our genetic ability to process alcohol into acetaldehyde, with those of Asian descent having highly effective alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes, which produce acetaldehyde when interacting with alcohol. So, for some of us, acetaldehyde can build up quickly when we’re drinking, leading to nausea, dizziness, and other unfortunate side effects.
Not all Drinks are Hangover-Equal
When it comes to hangovers, not all drinks are created equal. The most obvious difference is that some drinks are higher in alcohol than others, which means they have the potential to put more alcohol into your system more quickly, potentially leading to a hangover.
There’s a bit more to it that just ABV percentage, however. Some studies, such as one by the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, have shown that congeners (trace chemicals left over from fermentation) may play a role in worsening and lengthening hangover symptoms. Drinks with more congeners (specifically methanol, prevalent in red wines and whiskeys) were found to hang around for longer periods in the body, possibly contributing to lingering hangover symptoms. Low-congener drinks include gin, vodka, white wines, and beer, whilewhiskey, red wines, rum, and brandy have higher amounts.
The bad news: the only 100 percent sure way to prevent a hangover is to abstain from drinking. Since you’re reading an article about hangovers, we’ll assume that’s not your preferred option.
Science may yet provide us with some help in this department. Studies have shown that your brain may react to alcohol in similar ways as it does to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitters. If future research can confirm this, it could lead to new treatments for hangovers or even preventive solutions. In the meantime, here are some tips for lessening the potential for a hangover.
First, to avoid the buildup of chemicals that seem to promote hangover symptoms, you can drink less alcohol overall when you do drink. Drinking within your personal limits for alcohol tolerance is always advised, but of course can be tricky (it’s not always convenient to get details on how much alcohol is in the mixed drink that you just ordered from the bar, for example).
To help prevent dehydration symptoms, try to drink more water than usual whenever you are drinking alcohol, so that your body can try to maintain its normal water balance. To help prevent hangover symptoms generally, studies suggest that drinking more slowly may help, as might drinking after or while eating; a full digestive tract helps to slow alcohol absorption into the body, potentially lessening hangover effects.
You probably already figured this one out, but the only sure cure for a hangover is giving your body time to complete its normal process for dealing with alcohol.
Science has debunked most of the more popular hangover remedy myths. Among those shown in a study in the Netherlands to have no real impact on hangovers are consuming more alcohol (the “hair of the dog”), taking Vitamin B, or loading up on caffeine (which could worsen dehydration symptoms). Although there is no universally agreed-upon cure for the dreaded hangover, each country seems to have its own national remedy to help stave off the hangover beast.
In terms of treating hangover symptoms, a combination of science and common sense has us covered on what should be effective medicine. Hangover aches and headaches could be inflammatory responses, so treat them with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (but avoid acetaminophen, as it may increase liver sensitivity while it’s processing the toxins from the alcohol). For light-headedness, irritability, and fatigue, the best treatment is good old-fashioned rest. For nausea, you can take over-the-counter stomach relief medications. For dehydration symptoms, drink plenty of water, and avoid diuretics.
As for your wounded pride… well, we’re still working on how to treat that one.