Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: Hair Of The Dog And Other Hangover Myths Debunked

Bill Norris lends his expert opinion to the best hangover remedies. 

When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.--Isaac Newton, 1687

Newton, in his Third Law of Motion, neatly describes the genesis for what the French call la gueule de bois, or “wooden mouth,” a sensation familiar to lovers of drink everywhere upon the coming of the morning, the coin demanded by an infernal piper standing next to your bed, the throbbing display of, in medical lingo, veisalgia.

Veisalgia, from the Norwegian kveis or"uneasiness following debauchery" and the Greek algia or “pain;” in the common tongue, we call it a hangover.

Medical texts describing hangovers list as symptoms: poor sense of overall well-being, headache, sensitivity to light and sound, diarrhea, loss of appetite, trembling, nausea, fatigue, increased heart rate and blood pressure, dehydration(dry mouth, extreme thirst, dry eyes), trouble concentrating, anxiety and difficulty sleeping. To some extent, these symptoms are inevitable if you drink -- the consumption of about four alcoholic beverages causes increased urination to the tune of up to a quart over your normal, and puts you well on the way to dehydration. So the question becomes: what can be done to mitigate a hangover, because if you drink to excess, the very way your body processes alcohol is going to make you feel at least a little bit off the next day.

Given the amount of money that could be made by solving the problem, there is a shockingly small amount of formal research into what causes hangovers. But we do know that the morning after a bender, the body desperately tells the brain, “NEED WATER. NOW.” The brain responds by drying out your mouth and the rest of your body steals water from the brain, causing the brain to shrink in size and pull on the membranes that connect the brain to the skull. At the same time, the blood vessels in your head expand, and all this leads to the familiar morning after headache. Frequent urination while drinking has also depleted the body’s stores of sodium and potassium, exacerbating the headache and causing fatigue and nausea.

Alcohol also breaks down the body's store of glycogen in the liver, converting it into glucose and passing it from your system through urination, leading to weakness, more fatigue and decreased coordination. Drinking to excess also depletes your stores of magnesium, another electrolyte responsible for proper cell function.

One of the other byproducts of the liver metabolizing alcohol is the creation of acetaldehyde, a substance more toxic than alcohol. When alcohol is consumed in moderation, acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and glutathione quickly attack the acetaldehyde and turn it into the nontoxic acetate, but the liver’s store of glutathione is quickly used up when the bottle is hit harder, leading to acetaldehyde build up in the body. Symptoms of acetaldehyde toxicity include severe headache and vomiting, a symptom familiar to anyone who has been over served. And, bad news for women -- you naturally produce less glutathione than men, so you’re at more risk for more severe hangovers. As you continue to drink -- or pass out -- your body enters a state called glutamine rebound. Glutamine is a component of glutathione, and, in simple terms, is a natural stimulant. After a night of drinking, you suffer from sleep deprivation because the body is churning out replacement glutamine and, in the process, stimulating the brain. The excessive stimulant production not only leads to fatigue, but can cause stomach irritation and a general sense of illness, similar to what happens when you consume too much caffeine. In severe cases, glutamine rebound can lead to tremors, anxiety, restlessness and increased blood pressure.

Folk remedies abound to treat hangovers, and many of them actually have some benefit, but some of the most common don’t help at all, and may even hinder your return to the living. Hair of the Dog, often in the form of a Bloody Mary, is an oft cited cure, and is -- to a point -- a bad idea. The consumption of more alcohol won’t fix a hangover; it will only delay its onset and increase its severity and the acid in tomato juice can contribute to further stomach irritation. But, the vitamins, electrolytes and, most critically, the salt in a typical Bloody mix can be helpful. A Virgin Mary would be more helpful.

Things that are actually helpful the morning after target the body’s response to processing alcohol. Eating eggs provides a protein boost that targets your fatigue, but eggs also contain cysteine, which helps to breakdown any of the toxic acetaldehyde that’s hanging around. Bananas, kiwi fruit and other potassium rich foods or sports drinks can boost depleted electrolyte levels. Generally replenishing water and eating salty foods can do the same. The fructose in fruit juice boosts energy and can help the body speed the process of removing toxins, while boosting the vitamins depleted the night before. For the same reason, multi-supplements high in C and B vitamins can also be of use. A fruit smoothie is also a good idea.

Coffee is a complicated thing, because caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, and that helps with headaches, but it is also a diuretic, which can increase dehydration. Fatty foods, while a very good idea the night before as they slow alcohol absorption, can actually further irritate the lining of the stomach when you’re dealing with a hangover.

Painkillers are even more complicated. Excedrin is off cited as a remedy, and because it has caffeine, it will reduce the pounding in your head, but it also contains acetaminophen, which is hugely problematic because it is massively toxic when combined with alcohol, leading to severe liver and kidney damage. For the same reason, Tylenol is to be avoided.

Aspirin, however, is a prostaglandin inhibitor, and high levels of prostaglandin have been linked to increased hangover severity. Aspirin is particularly effective if taken before bed, but get the stuff with a coating, because aspirin can tear up your stomach. Stomach issues also limit ibuprofen, which has been linked to stomach tears when combined with alcohol.

The good news is that for light to moderate drinkers (up to three drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women), it’s going to take about 5-7 cocktails downed over the course of an evening to create a major hangover. But beyond not getting wasted, there are other things that can increase a hangover’s power: drinking on an empty stomach, lack of sleep, lots of physical activity while drinking and being dehydrated before you start imbibing will all lay the whammy down the next day. So eat a solid meal before drinking, drink about 8 ounces of water for every alcoholic beverage and ease off on the booze when you’re shaking your booty at the club. You’ll thank yourself in the morning.

This was originally published in the November issue of Birth.Movies.Death.