The elusive hangover cure: we’ve been looking for a guaranteed way to prevent and treat hangovers for centuries, and we still aren’t quite there.
We know from the Mediterranean Diet that a daily glass of red wine is actually good for you, and can promote cardiovascular health if you can keep up the habit. What we also know, however, that we don’t always limit ourselves to that one drink.
Whether you binge drink more regularly or save it for special occasions like New Year’s Eve, chances are you’re familiar with what happens the morning after: headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, thirst, loss of appetite…. The symptoms go on and on, ruining your morning and making you regret the fun of the night before.
Hangovers are hardly a new phenomenon. They’ve been around long enough to have collected hundreds of remedies that people will swear by, often passed on through generations. Problem is, almost none of those remedies have been studied. Surprisingly little research has been done on the prevention and treatment of hangovers—in fact, there’s even a study on how few studies have been conducted! Put simply, there’s a lot we don’t know.
…But there’s also quite a bit that we do know. Scientists have an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how alcohol works within the body, and thanks to that we have a good idea of how to behave in order to limit its effects. This year, don’t wait till the morning after to consider your hangover cure. Start the morning before you plan on drinking, and use that time to set yourself up for hangover prevention.
Before You Go Out…
This should really be part of your regular routine, but it’s especially important before you drink. Eat a nutritious meal. That doesn’t mean fast food or low-calorie or just a quick cup of coffee. Really eat. Eat foods that are high in fiber—they’ll break down and absorb alcohol, slowing its journey to the bloodstream. The right fatty foods, such as olive oil and those high in omega-3s, are another good way to slow down this process. Certain plant foods are high in natural compounds suggested in studies to support the liver in its natural alcohol detoxification process: citrus, prickly pear (also known as cactus pear), apples, beets, carrots, deep green leafy vegetables, and seasonings like garlic, ginger, and turmeric, for example. In one study of young and healthy participants, taking prickly pear extract five hours before drinking reduced the risk of a severe hangover by 62%.
While you’re at it, consider getting back-up from supplements. Vitamin C is said (though not proven) to prevent the symptoms of hangovers, as are B-vitamins, and N-acetyl cysteine is used in conventional and alternative care alike to address liver toxicities. The natural ‘phytoceuticals’ in the foods mentioned previously are also available in concentrated forms: omega-3 fatty acids, olive and prickly pear antioxidants, allicin, bioflavonoids, indoles, and curcumin. These have been found in research to help fight stress and inflammation, observed to be a source of many hangover symptoms.
You may also consider anti-inflammatory herbs. Research has found red ginseng to be helpful against hangovers, and has long corroborated the ‘gold standard’ status of silymarin-rich milk thistle seed extract for liver health support.
While You’re Drinking…
The first rule of hangover prevention is to drink in moderation—or not to drink at all. The risk of a hangover increases with the amount of alcohol taken in, so if a hangover would ruin your 8am meeting, then excessive drinking really isn’t an option. For those of us who can live with that risk, however, there are other ways to limit the severity of the problem.
One of the oldest tricks in the book is to order “on the rocks.” By asking for ice in your drink, you’re allowing the drink to be slowly diluted with water as the ice melts. This works particularly well with drinks you sip slowly—which brings us to another tip. If you’re in the middle of a conversation, you’ll drink slower than you might alone. Most people can metabolize about one drink each hour, so anything you can do to keep your count down to one an hour is a step in the right direction.
Speaking of giving your body time to metabolize your drinks, you can also do that by eating a meal or snacking while drinking. Eating anything will slow down the body’s absorption of alcohol, but fats and carbohydrates are particularly helpful, as they line the stomach and replace necessary sugars. The ideal meal to enjoy while drinking would be full of polyunsaturated fats, whole grains, and antioxidants—think salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, olives, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and citrus (even if it’s just the lemon you squeeze for the juice!).
What to do when it’s time to order another drink? For one thing, order the same drink as what you had before, as it’s no secret that mixing drinks can be especially heady (pun intended).
And hopefully, that drink wasn’t carbonated. Researchers at the University of Manchester found that alcohol is absorbed into the blood at a faster rate when mixed with carbonated beverages. Instead of soda, mix your liquor with water or carbonated water.
One more thought on that choice drink. Try to avoid drinks with congeners. Congeners are toxic chemicals formed in very small amounts during the production of alcohol, particularly distilled ‘hard’ liquors. Generally, alcohol that is colored (whiskey, tequila, bourbon, and cognac) is high in congeners. Alcohol that is clear-colored (vodka, gin, and rum) is low in congeners. Several studies have found the frequency and intensity of hangovers to be higher with whiskey (high in congeners) than with vodka (low in congeners).
So you’re snacking on nuts, talking to friends, sipping gin mixed with water on the rocks at the rate of one drink an hour. What more could you do to keep that hangover from ruining your tomorrow? Drink water. If you’ve ever noticed that you need the restroom more often when you’re out drinking, it’s not just you. In fact, for every alcoholic drink you take in, your body can urinate four times as much liquid. Dehydration is a significant factor in the discomfort of a hangover, and can be easily prevented. Simply switch off alcoholic drinks and glasses of water. If you drink one glass of water between (or during) each alcoholic drink, you’ll replace some of those expelled fluids and limit the chances of a headache the next morning. Better yet, liven up that water with twists of healing citrus.
Back at Home…
If we could revisit one of those old wives’ tales, few are as unhelpful as “the hair of the dog that bit you.” This comes from the ancient idea that if something harms you, you should have a little more of it. This is the reasoning behind a morning-after Bloody Mary, but adding alcohol to a hangover does not actually cure it. Rather, the best it can do is delay the inevitable.
If you’re feeling the effects of a hangover, you may want to drink an electrolyte-rich beverage to replenish key minerals and natural sugars—these include coconut water, infant rehydration solutions, or even simple sports drinks free from artificial colors and sweeteners. You could also take mineral-rich antacids, both the chalky tablet and chalky syrup types, which have the added advantage of easing the stomach. It should go without saying, however, that you still need to be drinking plenty of water. Not just before you drink and not just while you drink, but after you drink as well.
Your morning menu may make quite a difference in how you feel. If you start your morning with fresh fruit, there is some evidence that fructose can restore your blood sugar level. A serving of eggs—especially high-quality omega-3 or ‘pastured’ types—can assist the liver in clearing free radicals generated by alcohol metabolism, and carbohydrates can treat nausea and absorb alcohol left in the stomach. Including a banana and/or spinach helps to replenish electrolytes.
If a balanced breakfast isn’t cutting it and you still feel terrible (or you find yourself unable to face food at all), there are three more options. First, you may want to consider medication. Your doctor, pharmacist, or other licensed health care provider can help you make the right choice, even among non-prescription options. However, before you turn to medication, keep in mind that if you suffer from hangovers frequently enough to warrant a prescription, you may be at risk for more severe long-term health issues. Further, many doctors believe taking these medications after alcohol over the long-term can lead to liver damage.
Your second option is less risky: a multivitamin. Because your night of drinking has depleted nutrients in your body, taking a supplement will help replenish necessities like folate and vitamin B12.
And finally, your simplest option: get moving. Exercise releases endorphins, which should improve the way you’re feeling about your hangover. Even if you don’t feel like exercising, oxygen alone should increase the rate at which alcohol’s toxins are broken down in your body. So don’t let yourself regret the time you spent at your workplace holiday party, or ringing in the New Year. Step outside, enjoy the fresh air, and do the best you can for your health.
Swift R, Davidson D. Alcohol hangover: mechanisms and mediators. Alcohol Health Res World. 1998;22(1):54-60.
Verster JC, Alcohol Hangover Research Group, et al. The alcohol hangover research group consensus statement on best practice in alcohol hangover research. Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2010 Jun;3(2):116-26.
Tolisano, A. The Hangover: Pathophysiology and Treatment of an Alcohol-Induced Hangover. Clinical Correlations May 27, 2011