By Kate Hakala
On some unfortunate Sunday mornings, as we stare into the depths of our toilet bowls after a long hurl session and put a palm to our throbbing heads, most of us repeat the mantra, “I am NEVER drinking again!” Though temperance would be the global cure for our perpetual hangovers, drinking also seems to give us amnesia, because we forget about our promises, and we keep coming back for more.
So, the lush in me and the boozehound in you wants to know: What’s happening to our bodies after we drink? And, if we don’t want to become teetotalers, are there any cures for the ultra-humbling, apocalyptic phenomenon that is a hangover?
A hangover, or veisalgia for fancy folk, is that horrific nest of sensations experienced after a night of heavy drinking. It can often involve a collection of symptoms like headache, vomiting, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, the spins, sensitivity to light and sound, tremors, fatigue, cottonmouth, and an overall sense of bodily dread. Golden ways to produce a killer hangover include drinking on an empty stomach, drinking after a night of poor sleep, being dehydrated before you drink, being sick to start with and increased physical activity, such as getting a little too groovy on the dance floor while drunk. In order to best surmise how to undo the damage in the morning, scientists are trying to uncover exactly what kind of harm we are doing during our few hours of revelry.
While you might think a hangover comes solely from dehydration, your body is also suffering from light alcohol withdrawal, as well as managing the chemicals your liver produced in order to deal with all those toxins you put in. So, let’s fully assess the wreckage.
Water, Water, Everywhere: When you drink, your body stops producing vasopressin, the anti-pee hormone. Without vasopressin, your kidneys don’t allow the body to absorb the water you take in; instead, it goes straight to your bladder. Studies say that for every 250 mL of alcohol you put in, the body expels four times as much water. Now you know why ‘breaking the seal’ isn’t much of a myth. The diuretic effect of alcohol is one of the reasons why you hit the toilet seat as much as the barstool. After all that loss of water, in the morning, your body feels like a sponge left in a sauna, and it tries to pull water from every spring you have, including your brain. So, you experience the worst headaches and dry mouth of your life. Not to mention, with the pee goes all your sodium, magnesium, and potassium stores, which means you’re even more tired and nauseated. But, that’s just the beginning.
Warning, Toxic Waste: Let’s not forget alcohol is a toxin. It goes into your bloodstream, meaning it effects your entire body. As your liver breaks down alcohol, enzymes metabolize it into acetaldehyde, which can be a byproduct just as toxic as the juice itself. Your superhero body creates glutathione to attack acetaldehyde with the help of other enzymes. The catch? The liver only has so much glutathione. If you’re binge drinking, or consuming about 4-5 drinks in a 2-3 hour period, you will run out. Side effects of too much acetaldehyde in your system include vomiting and headache. You know, the fun stuff. And listen up, dames, because the liver never heard of the women’s movement: Women don’t produce as much glutathione as men, resulting in more severe hangovers for the ladies because it takes longer for their bodies to work out all the toxins. Before you go shot-for-shot with a fella, think about your biological boozing handicap.
Sleeping Ugly: Even though it sometimes seems like all you need is a beer to take a snooze, alcohol and restful sleep aren’t pals. Alcohol shuts down our production of glutamine, a natural stimulant. So, after you stop drinking, your body tries to make up for lost time and produces even more than average. That might be why you can’t sleep after doing shots. You’re hyped up on glutamine. You wake up in the morning feeling so weary because you haven’t been allowed to reach REM, a sound sleep. Post-bender fatigue makes for a surly wake up and an even worse next-day work ethic.
Every Cookie, Tossed: If you’ve ever drank too much, at some point in the night or the next morning, you’ve probably gotten a little too intimate with the innards of your gastrointestinal tract. Nausea starts with an inflamed stomach lining and hydrochloric acid produced by drinking alcohol. Your brain tells your stomach that all those toxins and acids are doing you harm, so the body expels it the fastest way it can. This ends in puking. Or, Poseidon’s rage in the vernacular. Vomiting, while placating symptoms of nausea, further dehydrates us and deprives us of nutrients, which weakens our system.
Your Chosen Poison: Are all alcohols and hangovers created equally? No. The amount you drink, your size, your genes, and your tolerance are of course factors. But, what you drink is also key to whether or not you’re going to bow down to the porcelain king all morning. Congeners, a toxic byproduct of alcohol fermentation, can determine this. Dark drinks like red wine, whiskey, and tequila have more congeners than clearer spirits like vodka, rum, and gin.
Ever wondered about the old adage, “beer before liquor makes you sicker”? That’s because mixing congeners can increase hangover symptoms and the carbonation of beer makes your body absorb alcohol faster. With lowered defenses, mixing different alcohols can become a more vile concoction than whatever those Macbeth witches were cooking up. Unfortunately, thrifty tipplers will be dismayed to discover that cheaper alcohol has more congeners. Top shelf drinks may pack a meaner punch on our wallets, but they are far kinder to our guts come the morning.
A Cure, Please: Now that you know why you feel like resurrected rat excrement the morning after you’ve been two sheets to the wind, I bet you’re wondering if there is indeed any proven cure. There are many hypotheses floating around. And some work.
The hair of the dog, or drinking a little bit of alcohol in the morning, may ease some symptoms, but you’re only delaying the crash. By adding more toxins to your body, the body’s to-do list just gets a little longer. Maybe your headache will go away for a few hours, but trust me, you will eventually feel hungover.
Some want a quick fix for a headache and go to the medicine cabinet. Don’t think you’re clever by popping a preventative aspirin before bed. If you’re drinking, stay clear of aspirin. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen mixed with alcohol can do lasting damage to your liver, where they are both metabolized. Also, some pills contain caffeine, which actually dehydrates you more, even though dehydration was the root cause for your migraine in the first place.
What should you be eating for breakfast? Some advise fried food, coffee, and burnt toast, but these offer little nutritional value and don’t actually replenish anything your body needs, except perhaps salt. Eggs in the morning are the best thing for your body. Eggs contain cysteine that absorbs acetaldehyde, that evil toxin we learned about above. Since a hangover is just the result of your body trying to process the poison you ingested and get rid of it pronto, eggs can only expedite the affair.
Remember all those bathroom breaks? Bananas can help give you back the potassium you flushed down the toilet. Fruit juice also can give you energy through fructose, get rid of toxins, and restores some of those key vitamins you lost through urinating or vomiting. Even sports drinks can be your best bet, as you’re lacking sugars and electrolytes. Other unsung superstars include coconut water, to replace electrolytes, and pho noodle soup, for protein and sodium.
There are tons of bogus over-the-counter pills for sale boasting hangover prevention. While some have caffeine and vitamins, which can help with symptoms, the only thing these pills are proven to do is to get you to drink water with them throughout the night. Save your money and go for the cheap stuff from the tap. That’s because the best hangover remedy is hydration. Water! Water! Water! Before, after, and during your cocktails. Having water while you drink, downing a few glasses before you go to bed, and waking up to a glass can make the next day that much more livable.
So, I hate to mother you, but prevention might just be the very best cure. Eating food right before you drink will definitely help with a hangover. French fries as a hangover prevention might be the only endorsement for the artery-cloggers you will ever see. That’s because fried and fatty foods sit in the stomach longer and will reduce how much alcohol your body absorbs. A nice hearty meal accompanied by frequent water guzzling is the tried and true way to get in on the bacchanal without the barf-and-all.
Finally, time is also a proven hangover cure, but nobody wants to hear that.
Remember, a hangover feels as heinous as it does because you are suffering from a minute overdose of a depressant. Try not to overdo it. Nights of excessive inebriation will always undoubtedly lead to large amounts of social humiliation, so why should they also have to lead to physical pain and discomfort? Think of a round meal and plenty of water like it’s your hangover prophylactic. Even if it’s not the certifiably cool thing to do, get in the habit of drinking a glass of water with each shot. Your roommate, your trash can, your liver, your one-night stand, and certainly you will thank me in the morning.
ExpliKate is a column running on Kate-book.com every other Monday at noon. It is written by the hyper-inquisitive Kate Hakala, who seeks to answer questions ranging from “What is kombucha?” to what you read above. Follow her on Twitter here.