If you’re one of the lucky few adults in the world who’ve never had a hangover, well, I just don’t think we can be friends. Because that means you’ve never woken up to a headache that makes squirting lemon juice in your eye seem pleasant by comparison, or nausea so powerful that your stomach is heaving like a San Francisco street during the Loma Prieta earthquake, or a mouth so dry you couldn’t moisten a single postage stamp if your life depended on it. And these are only the initial physical sensations that greet you when you wake up after tying one on—it only gets worse from there. With each passing moment, as you become increasingly aware of just how much your body hates you, the questions build: Will I make it to the bathroom in time if I get sick? How can I get an enormous pile of greasy food in front of me without leaving this bed? How many empty promises did I make to people I dislike last night? Come to think of it, how did I even get home?
For those of you who are all too familiar with this grim scenario, you know what comes next: the painfully slow recovery and the accompanying vow, “I’ll never drink again as long as I live.” That never lasts, but the more experience we have with hangovers, the more tricks we learn for mitigating their deleterious effects on our physical well-being. But first, let’s start with the basics …
What Are Hangovers, Exactly?
Despite the fact that, according to Discovery Health, more than 75 percent of alcohol consumers have been hungover at least once, medical experts aren’t 100 percent certain about the exact bodily processes that lead to this state. They have, however, narrowed down their ideas to two primary theories. The first is that a hangover actually signifies minor alcohol withdrawal, which Medical News Today calls a “hyperstimulatory state.” In a hungover state, this school of thought says, people’s bodies may feel fatigued, but their central nervous system is actually agitated, and that agitation is what we’ve come to know as a hangover. The fact that alcohol is a diuretic, and therefore highly dehydrating, only makes matters worse by causing the hangover’s signature splitting headache.
The second theory holds that hangovers result not from alcohol itself, but rather from certain biological and chemical compounds it contains, called congeners. Medical News Today explains that many alcohols are created through yeast, which ferments sugar and alcohol to form potable ethyl alcohol, but also sometimes produces methanol, a much more toxic type of alcohol, in the process. When we consume trace amounts of methanol along with the ethyl alcohol we drink, our livers don’t actually expel it from our bodies. Instead, they metabolize the methanol as formaldehyde, which then stays in our bloodstream much longer than ethyl alcohol does. It’s the production of this formaldehyde, scientists in this camp maintain, that causes the symptoms we identify as a hangover: most commonly, headache, fatigue, dehydration, and nausea, but also difficulty sleeping, trembling, diarrhea, sensitivity to light and sound, and anxiety.
What Factors Cause the Worst Hangovers?
Though we’re arguably unanimous about the notion that hangovers feel just plain awful, their physical manifestations are subject to numerous variables. Proponents of the methanol-poisoning theory posit a direct correlation between the darkness of the alcohol being ingested and the likelihood that a hangover will result. Wine and whiskey, for example, are both loaded with additives and congeners that may contribute to a whopper of a hangover, while clear alcohols, such as vodka and gin, are purer and therefore generally less likely to make you rue the day you were introduced to cocktails. However, keep in mind that mixing different types of liquor over the course of an evening is even more detrimental than drinking whiskey exclusively, because the more types of alcohols you drink in one night, the wider the variety of their particular poisons you ingest in the process, and the harder your liver has to work to process all those toxins.
With that said, despite the prevalence of the saying “Beer before liquor, you’ve never been sicker; liquor before beer, you’re in the clear,” the order in which you drink various spirits has no bearing on how hungover you’ll be: in an article called “Mixing Mythology” in the Portland, Oregon–based publication Willamette Week, an assistant professor of nutrition and a pharmacologist both dismissed the notion as baseless.
All kinds of additional factors can affect the rate at which the human body processes alcohol and the severity of the aftereffects the next day—namely, sleep deprivation, body weight, hydration levels prior to, during, and after alcohol consumption, and whether the alcohol is taken with food or without.
How Can You Avoid Feeling This Bad?
To prevent or mitigate hangover symptoms, some adults extol the virtues of Pedialyte, a drink intended to rehydrate children who’ve been vomiting. Some tout a combination of Benadryl and Motrin, taken just before bed after a night of drinking, as a miracle cure. Others head straight to McDonald’s to sop up the booze in their systems with grease. Still others swear by the “hair of the dog” approach, which involves drinking even more alcohol the morning after, the logic being that if a hangover really is a form of withdrawal, a fresh infusion of liquor eases the drinker’s pain by slowing the liver’s agonizing metabolism of methanol and concurrent production of formaldehyde.
Everyone has her own go-to remedy, but perhaps never has the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” been more applicable than it is to hangovers. To keep your pain to a minimum, try the following:
- Don’t drink too quickly, and for every alcoholic beverage you consume, alternate with one or two glasses of water.
- Never drink on an empty stomach; food will slow the rate at which your bloodstream absorbs alcohol.
- Sleep for as long as possible after a night of drinking.
- Stick with a single type of alcohol throughout the night.
- Avoid mixed drinks with carbonation (which speeds the absorption of alcohol) or sugar and caffeine (both of which only exacerbate the “crash” following a big night out).
Responsible Is as Responsible Does
When you’re in the clutches of a brutal hangover, your resolve to abstain from drinking alcohol for the rest of your life feels all-powerful—but it usually lasts only as long as it takes your best friend to invite you to the next two-for-one happy hour. And thus begins the vicious cycle all over again, until you finally wise up one day and set about breaking the chain once and for all. For now, at least do what the liquor ads say: please drink responsibly. And remember what I say: if you insist on playing with flaming sambuca, you very well might get burned.
Updated December 30, 2010