The fuzzy head, the aching liver, the nagging headache, and the taste of stale vomit. The morning after the night before. Sweating and moaning, you crawl to the bathroom, and while resting your head on the cool rim of the toilet bowl, swear - between agonising retches - that you will never, ever, ever drink again...
At very least since the dawn of civilisation, humans have been drinking alcohol and suffering the consequences. Modern drinks are comparatively clean, their production closely controlled, and there is a bewildering selection to choose from. However, the aftermath remains the same. Surely science, which has provided people with so many novel and tasty ways of getting drunk, can save them from the side-effects?
Help is at hand. h2g2 brings you the complete guide to hangovers and their 'cures'. Pour yourself a stiff one, and read on. If you can shed further light on the darker reaches of the phenomenon, or if you have your own favourite hangover cure, then please feel free to comment and we'll keep this Entry up to date. It's the least we can do as a service to humanity.
Why Do Hangovers Happen?
This is the big question. Probably unsurprisingly, the answer is fairly complex. If there was a single simple reason for all that pain, you can be sure that a catch-all cure would have been discovered long ago. As it is, there is a positive cocktail of effects, all of which conspire to make 'the morning after' a grim one.
Pure ethanol1 is metabolically fairly clean, and confirmed vodka drinkers will often bring this up as justification for their habit, and explanation for their resistance to hangovers. In many ways, they are quite correct. If you consider an alcoholic beverage to be water, ethanol, and a bunch of flavourings, then the identity of some of those flavourings is quite frightening. Red wines contain all sorts of interesting chemicals, leading to the complex flavourings typical of the breed, and although many of these impurities - such as arsenic - are poisonous, they are usually present in such minute quantities as to be relatively harmless. However, if the wine is concentrated by distillation2, then as well as increasing the alcohol content, you are also concentrating the poisons. This is the reason that brandy, port and cheap red wine can give you the most monstrous hangovers, as well as gout in later life.
It is also for this reason that people are often advised not to 'mix their drinks'. Different styles of drink have different impurities, and some of them can react with one another in interesting ways. Some common aides memoire from English folklore are:-
Don't mix the grape and the grain. Keep wine/port/brandy separate from beer/whisky.
Beer then wine, I feel fine. Wine then beer, I feel queer.
This is the most well-documented consequence of drinking. In addition to its intoxicating qualities, ethanol also has diuretic3 qualities, so you end up expelling more liquid than you drink. It acts on the brain's pituitary gland and blocks production of a hormone called vasopressin, which usually directs the kidneys to reabsorb water that would otherwise end up in the bladder. Once this hormonal signal has been switched off, there is nothing to stop the bladder from filling up with all the water from the fluid that you drink. A supply of water is essential to the continuing functioning of the body, and when various organs find that their normal supply of water has been cut off, they steal it from anywhere they can, including the cells of the brain. Although the brain itself cannot feel pain, when it starts to shrink due to water loss, pain-sensitive filaments connecting the outside membranes to the inside of the skull become stretched, giving the symptoms of a headache.
Free Radical Build-up
In simple terms, the liver's job is to destroy poisons which are present in the body, and when you start drinking it sets to work on destroying the ethanol. However, this process generates destructively reactive chemicals called free radicals. These are usually mopped up by an enzyme called glutathione, but during a binge, reserves can run low, leaving the free radicals to run riot through the liver.
Loss of Salts
Frequent visits to the toilet not only result in the loss of water, but also of the important salts dissolved in it. Potassium and sodium ions in particular are essential for the optimal functioning of nerves and muscles. An imbalance outside a limited range can result in nausea, fatigue, and headaches.
Loss of Sugar
Alcohol attacks the body's store of glycogen, an important energy source kept in the liver, breaking it down to glucose which is then flushed out in the urine. Without this store of energy on call next morning, you are left feeling weak and wobbly.
Methanol is a simpler cousin of ethanol, and is found as a contaminant in cheap red wines, whisky and fruit brandy. This is 'meths', the fuel alcohol that makes you blind if you drink too much of it. The liver attacks it as the poison it is, but one of the break-down products is formic acid, a particularly nasty chemical which ants use to spray at their attackers.
Sold in Australia specifically as a vitamin supplement, but widely recognised as a hangover cure, these small tubes contain all the chemicals that are lost and destroyed in a drinking session, in the correct proportions. In its native land, Berocca is often handed out free to delegates every morning at week-long conferences. Many Australians would not consider going on a binge without a supply of Berocca to hand.
Berocca is now available in the UK from Boots the Chemist. It is marketed as a pick-me-up for business meetings, but drinkers know better!
For completeness, here are the ingredients of Berocca:
|Thiamine nitrate||Vitamin B1|
|Riboflavine sodium phosphate||Equivalent to vitamin B2|
|Calcium pantothenate||Equivalent to vitamin B5 |
|Pyridoxine hydrochloride||Vitamin B6|
|Ascorbic Acid||Vitamin C|
|Calcium carbonate||A source of calcium|
A good strong cup of coffee or tea will perk you up at any time of day, but that's just the caffeine stimulating your tired body. It doesn't actually cure anything, and if you're at the stage when you can keep hot drinks down then you're probably on the road to recovery anyway. In addition, caffeine is also a diuretic, and you don't want to be losing any more water at this stage of the game, so from this viewpoint it may be best to avoid tea, coffee, cola, Red Bull and the like4.
Many traditional hangover cures, such as Prairie Oysters, omelettes and the English Fried Breakfast, involve eggs. Others swear by the efficacy of a downed raw egg in the morning. The reason that these are thought to work at all is probably that eggs also contain cysteine5, and so help to mop up free radicals.
Hair of the Dog
A tot of alcohol in the morning. For some particularly nasty hangovers, this can be useful, although the bad news is that the effect is only temporary. The liver attacks poisons in a certain order, with ethanol first. Once all the ethanol has been broken down, it starts on the methanol, which releases formic acid into your system and makes you feel bad. Hitting the liver with another dose of ethanol causes it to stop processing methanol and start on the new threat, but the methanol will have to be processed sometime so you are only postponing the hangover until later.
Another way of relieving a headache is to sit in a really hot, really powerful shower, and get the full force of it on the back of your neck. This may need some juxtaposition of plastic chairs and shower settings, so it might be an idea to practice first while sober, but it is worthwhile because headaches are often caused by constricted blood vessels and tense neck muscles. A massage under a hot shower relaxes the tension.
Isotonic6 Sports Drinks
In theory these are a great idea, for they are supposed to replace all the salts and sugars that are sweated out during athletic activity - surely much the same thing as we are trying to achieve here. The problem is that, due to market forces, they are usually fizzy, and probably the last thing you need while suffering a hangover is a bellyful of bloating gas. However, if you don't mind, or if you can find a flat one, it's definitely worth doing. One variation on the sports drink theme is a 50:50 mix of Tropical Tango and Red Bull.
Since you cannot depend on your kidneys to filter your blood properly after a binge, you could get a machine to do it for you. Admittedly most people don't have access to a dialysis machine, but if you can stand getting hooked up by nurses armed with needles while still drunk, you can be sober in four or five hours without any ill effects.
An amino acid supplement sold in health food stores, this is extremely good at mopping up the free radicals that have built up in the liver. NAC works because it is rich in cysteine, another amino acid that is used by the body in the manufacture of free radical-eliminating glutathione. For those in the know, this is a very effective hangover remedy, and is especially good if you need a clear head in the morning.
Popular wisdom dictates a brisk walk in fresh mountain air to dispel those post-binge blues, but the problem is that when you really need it, the last thing you're capable of doing is getting up off the floor, let alone going out into the outside world. The theory is that the increased oxygen flow improves the metabolic rate, and thus increases the speed at which the poisons are broken down. Be that as it may, SCUBA divers have long known that a blast from the tank first thing in the morning does wonders in blowing away the fog.
Pinching your Hand
There is a nerve junction between the thumb and forefinger on your left hand which is reputed to be an acupressure point which can release tension in the head and neck. If you pinch it quite hard for 30 seconds every five minutes, normal tension headaches can be relieved. It's certainly worth trying if you can't keep down any painkillers...
Sold in the UK as a stomach settler, this is a powder that becomes a fizzy drink when added to water, and contains a painkiller and some anti-acid chemicals. Another common brand, although without the painkiller, is Alka Seltzer which comes in tablet form. For our purposes, these are best taken before going to bed, as the chances are that in the morning you won't be able to keep it down. It can work marvels, especially if followed in the morning by a vitamin supplement such as Berocca. The ingredients listed for Resolve are:
|Ascorbic Acid||Vitamin C|
|Sodium bicarbonate, Potassium bicarbonate, Sodium carbonate||All are antacids|
|Glucose, Saccharin sodium, Sucrose||Sugars|
Research on small mammals has shown that a poisoned digestive system is much better at taking up an isotonic solution than it is at taking up pure water. So, if you're going to drink water, put a spoonful of salt in it, and a couple more of sugar to increase the concentration and mask the taste. While you're at it, you might as well throw in some powdered painkillers, although bear in mind that some studies have shown that paracetamol7 can amplify alcohol's damaging effect on the liver. As with any medication, read the packet carefully
The traditional hangover remedy, with folklore dictating that you should quaff a pint of water for every drink that you have consumed. Undeniably this has some ameliorative effect, but because your kidneys' water-absorption function has been switched off, a lot of it goes straight to your bladder, noticeably causing nocturnal trips to the bathroom and little else.
Please note that we take no responsibility for any ill effects caused by the remedies suggested here: you try them at your own risk. Nobody should mix their medicines. Similarly nobody should drink ten pints of lager and then eat a curry. You have been warned.
1 The active intoxicating ingredient in alcoholic drinks.
2 The process involved in making brandy or port, for example, and the reason people refer to whiskey 'stills', although whiskey is usually made from starchy grain.
3 A handy word to describe a substance that makes you urinate.
4 However, it is worth noting that one way of treating a headache is to drink strong black coffee without sugar, but with a little bit of fresh lemon juice added. It tastes disgusting, but does actually work.
5 See the subsequent point on N-acetyl-cysteine.
6 Containing salts in the same concentrations as the solutions found in your body cells.
7 Acetominaphen in the US.