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The Morning After: Hangover Cures, Past and Present

The hangover is about eight hours younger than the discovery of alcohol. And as long as there has been alcohol consumption, there have been different theories about how to defeat the feelings of dehydration, nausea, headache and fatigue that follow. While many methods have been employed – some more creative than others – there is no surefire cure; if there were, it would be common knowledge. In fact, hangovers are poorly understood from a medical point of view. It seems that doctors prefer finding cures for cancer rather than for headaches that might have resulted from a game of “race you to the bottom of this bottle of Zin!”

Now that we’ve established that doctors can’t help you, I offer my services. While I might not have a fancy “degree” or lots of “book learning,” I have done extensive research in my own lab – which is actually a combination of my couch, bed, bathroom and the diner around the corner. If it adds to my credibility, you can picture me wearing a lab coat while experimenting. So here we go. If you must overindulge, here are some hangover helpers from least effective to most.

—An old Irish cure was to bury the ailing person up to the neck in moist river sand. While cheeky and hilarious, the lab results were wildly inconclusive. While finding sand in places I never knew existed took attention away from hangover symptoms, it was equally inconvenient. Once showered, symptoms persisted. Verdict: Keep in mind for St. Paddy’s Day, but have a backup plan.

—B-12: Recent studies have shown that drinking in excess severely depletes your vitamin B. Solution: Take a bunch.

—Sodium bicarbonate: Alcohol reacts with your stomach lining and is also metabolized from ethanol into acetaldehyde – actually 10-30 times more toxic than ethanol – before metabolizing into acetic acid. This is what causes nausea. If you’re feeling nauseous, take an Alka-Seltzer to ease your stomach.

—Food: There are several foods that help with hangovers. My research has concluded that the best hangover breakfast is likely an egg, a banana, some toast, a grapefruit, and some blood sausage or a couple pickles.

First, eggs contain cysteine, which is thought to combat hangover symptoms. Next, the banana replenishes the body with potassium, which is depleted by heavy drinking.

Carbs are your next plan of attack. Alcohol consumption may reduce glucose production in the body and deplete the reserves of glucose stored in the liver. Glucose is the main energy source for the brain, so low blood sugar causes fatigue, weakness and general craziness experienced during hangovers. Get some carbs in you and raise that blood sugar.

A grapefruit will get you you’re allotment of vitamin C. Yes, vitamin C seems obvious, but little do most know, it is an enzyme responsible for breaking down alcohol in the body.

Lastly, we have mineral-rich foods. Why should this work? No clue, but it seems to be one of the go-to remedies for every country ever, in the history of the world.  Poland has sour pickle juice; Germany has pickled herring; and many countries from East Asia to Western Europe have black pudding (blood sausage). So jump on the bandwagon and start eating iron.

—Boosting metabolism: Whether this means exercising or eating something spicy, this will ramp up the processing of alcohol in your system quicker. At least that’s what I hear. Stands to reason, right?

—Water: This is a boring one, but it’s universally acknowledged to help. Alcohol causes dehydration, and lab results say hydrate.

—Time: the only surefire solution is time for your body to process the alcohol. Sleep can be helpful in making time fly and comes with a higher metabolic rate than watching TV and feeling like death.

—Better genes: When all else fails, blame your parents. A little over 20 percent of people don’t suffer from hangovers. Lucky them.

Failed lab tests

—Painkillers: I know, this is horrible news, but in your liver’s compromised state, these seemingly helpful pills can be seriously detrimental to your health. The worst offender is Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, which is the most common cause of liver failure in the US. Taking this after a night of Jell-O Shots exponentially jeopardizes your liver.  Also, alcohol thins the blood, and aspirin is a blood-thinner. Combining the two means really thin blood.

—Hair of the dog: I’m a pretty big offender of this rule, but that’s mostly because Bloody Marys are delicious. When we think about this logically, though, it’s kind of a bad idea. Having a drink might have the initial benefit of numbing the symptoms, but adding more alcohol for your body to process only adds stress to the liver, which will result in feeling more horrible later. The symptoms get progressively worse as you near zero blood alcohol content, so you might as well sleep it off now rather than delay the inevitable. Also, this greatly increases the chances of dependency. Look at Ernest Hemingway; this man routinely drank and recommended beer and tomato juice. Even though you studied the guy in high school, it doesn’t diminish the fact that homeboy had issues with liquor.

—Coffee: I can sense that you’re pulling away, but bear with me. Think about it: You’re awake, but now you’re also highly aware that you’re hungover. It might temporarily improve a headache by decreasing the size of blood vessels, but it will also dehydrate you further. If coffee is a must, drink it with a glass of water.

Preventative Measures

Yawn, I know, but as stated before, there is no cure. So the best solution is not to become hungover in the first place.

—Hydrate: Drink a glass of water with every alcoholic drink you have. This will keep you from becoming dehydrated and will likely keep you from drinking more than you would have otherwise.

—Moderation: Keep to one drink an hour. That’s about how long it takes for your liver to process the alcohol.

—Eat early and often: Finally, fun news. Don’t drink on an empty stomach, but stay away from sugary foods. The stomach lets sugar pass through to the intestines – where alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream – with minimal processing, whereas the stomach sees protein and says something to the effect of “What’s that? Shut the gate! I’m going to have to spend some time on this.”  Conclusion: if you add alcohol to a stomach full of protein, it won’t be absorbed into the bloodstream as quickly, thus giving your liver more time to break it down.

So there you have it, results from years of grueling work in my lab, laid bare before you. Do with it what you will, but obviously, the best cure for a hangover is not to get one in the first place. Drink responsibly.

Follow me and my ongoing lab tests on Twitter @ChrisHallowell