How do you deal with a hangover? We asked this of some men and women in the run up to their new year’s celebrations. Below are their responses and our explanations based on the science behind these hard-learned recommendations. Drink vodka and water, i.e. choose your drink carefully.
You may have brushed off your high school chemistry classes, but there is one chemical that just won’t go away — acetaldehyde. Every drink eventually becomes acetaldehyde in the body when ethanol, the stuff that makes you high, is metabolised. Acetaldehyde is toxic and causes flushing, sweatiness, nausea, vomiting and an increased heart rate. It disrupts some important biological pathways such as gluconeogenesis. As its name suggests, gluconeogenesis makes new glucose. The brain is picky and will only accept energy in the form of glucose. When your drinking binge diverts the production of glucose for the brain, you feel lethargic, moody, weak, and unable to concentrate.
What does acetaldehyde have to do with vodka? Acetaldehyde and the other non-ethanol chemicals that make their way into booze are called congeners. Similar to acetaldehyde, other congeners contribute to the symptoms of a hangover. Vodka and gin have less of these, so are safer, less hangover-inducing drinks. The liquids with colour, smell and apparently more taste have higher amounts of congeners. Whisky, rum, red wine, and brandy (in that order) are the guilty lot. Drink a lot of water before bed.
Ethanol is the reason you need to visit the bathroom soon after downing your spirits. It reduces the effect of a water-regulating hormone and tells your kidneys to let some water out. As a result, your blood becomes more concentrated. This has been blamed for some of the fatigue and headaches seen in hangovers. So, drink a lot of water. Eat a lot of carbs.
As mentioned above, alcohol decreases gluconeogenesis by distracting the liver to break down ethanol. This keeps glucose levels low. Also, a long night of drinking can blunt the normal cortisol surge that gives early morning glucose and energy. The way to counter these effects is to keep munching. This is especially important for frequent heavy drinkers. They have lower levels of glucose stores in their bodies so are more susceptible to these glucose changes. This is why if you see someone pass out at a bar, ask the bartender to keep some sugar water ready. Eat greasy burgers, fries and orange juice.
Add some raw or slightly poached eggs to that! Fats and proteins slow the absorption of alcohol. Eggs contain an important nutrient that gets wasted when you do — cysteine. Studies have shown that supplementing vitamin B1 and C as well as cysteine can protect against the toxic effects of acetaldehyde. Anyone who says they have a solution is lying. Time is the ONLY healer of hangovers.
It is true. A hangover can last up to 24 hours. But the time course of a hangover is not that intuitive. A hangover actually begins about six to eight hours after a binge, when alcohol levels start to decrease. When blood alcohol levels fall to zero, a hangover becomes most severe. To explain this, some experts define a hangover as acute alcohol withdrawal.
That leads us to an intuitive conclusion: Wouldn’t one more drink be the perfect remedy? Studies have shown that alcohol administration does reduce the symptoms of a hangover. But please do not try that at home. One of the biggest risks of a lot of hangovers is that craving for a drink in the morning, or an ‘eye opener’. It can be a quick fall from there to addiction.
Let us know what you do to prevent or deal with a hangover. Not drinking at all earns extra cool points from me. Dr Kumar, and our health team, can be contacted at health.forbesindia@ network18online.com
(This story appears in the 22 January, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)