Hangover Helpers

The Norwegians call it kveis, meaning “the uneasiness following debauchery.” The medical term is veisalgia (algia is Greek for “pain”). We call it a hangover.

While the Annals of Internal Medicine says, “There is no consensus definition of veisalgia,” most of us know it when we see it. Alcohol is a diuretic, and most symptoms of overimbibing are a result of dehydration. Under these circumstances, the brain shrinks away from the skull and the blood vessels in the head expand, causing headaches. The body’s capillaries shrink, leading to mild hypothermia, or that clammy feeling. Dehydration starts as you digest that first drink, but other effects begin several hours later, as the alcohol makes its way through the small intestine (hello, nausea). Alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, which the body attempts to expel because it’s toxic. Fat builds up in the liver, which swells, reducing blood flow and preventing toxins from being flushed from the body. And finally, alcohol inhibits the synthesis of glutamate, one of the body’s stimulants. At first, this inhibition makes the imbiber feel nice and mellow, but as the alcohol wears off, the body overcompensates for the lack of glutamine by producing more of it. This prevents deep sleep and can cause early-morning insomnia.

None of this leads to much motivation to get up on time the morning after. According to research published in 1998 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, hangovers cost the U.S. economy $148 billion annually in absenteeism and poor job performance, but they have led to some creative hangover “cures.” One recent study published in the British Medical Journal concluded, sadly, “No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover.” Some treatments, however, can assuage the pain. Here are some you might try.

1. Painkillers. Duh, right? Not so fast: There are some caveats. First, make sure the painkiller isn’t acetaminophen, which, according to the FDA, can cause liver damage in combination with alcohol. Ibuprofen and naproxen sodium are better, but can cause stomach bleeding and lead to kidney damage if used long term (longer than two weeks). Aspirin, taken with milk and food, may be the best over-the-counter option, but it can also cause stomach bleeding when used long term in combination with alcohol. And don’t take it before you drink: As Stephen Braun mentions in his book, Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine (Oxford University Press, 2001), studies have shown that taking aspirin before drinking can increase the rapidity of intoxication, especially in women. “In one study,” Braun notes, “the average blood alcohol levels of subjects who had consumed alcohol an hour after ingesting two Maximum Bayer aspirin tablets were 26 percent higher than subjects who consumed ethanol without first taking aspirin.”

2. Water. Common sense says that if alcohol causes dehydration, then water is the cure. But not too much water, which can lead to hyponatremia, or “water intoxication,” which dilutes the sodium in the body and can be fatal. The standard guideline of 12 eight-ounce glasses a day should be adequate for rehydration. Fruit juice may be a better option because it contains fructose, which may speed up the rate at which the body rids itself of toxins.

3. Taurine. A common ingredient in energy drinks and also available in supplement form, taurine has been shown in studies to reverse liver damage caused by a night of heavy drinking, helping the body to flush out toxins more quickly—so you can imbibe that Red Bull and vodka and feel a little smug about it. The high amounts of caffeine in energy drinks also help to constrict cerebral blood vessels, alleviating that headache the next day; however, caffeine is a diuretic and may exacerbate dehydration. Meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, and fish are other good sources of taurine.

4. Pedialyte. Yes, it’s for babies that have diarrhea. Yes, that might be exactly what you feel like after drinking to excess. In liquid or in “freezer pop” form, Pedialyte contains more electrolytes than Powerade or Gatorade, rehydrating you more quickly. Enough hangovers, and you may even develop a preference for fruit, grape, or bubble gum flavor (Pedialyte also comes in unflavored liquid).

5. Fried food. Even if there weren’t evidence to back up the benefits of a greasy breakfast, it would qualify as a hangover treatment simply because it’s so comforting. But two elements of a fried breakfast have some scientific backing: Both egg yolks and garlic contain cysteine, an amino acid that binds and neutralizes acetaldehyde. All those carbohydrates help stabilize blood sugar and neutralize stomach acids.

6. Marmite or Vegemite on toast. Made from brewer’s yeast, Marmite and Vegemite both contain vitamin B complex, folic acid, and salt, all of which are depleted after alcohol consumption. Despite rumors to the contrary, Vegemite is not banned in the U.S., but it can be hard to find in stores. It is easily ordered online.

7. Ginger. A long-trusted anti-nausea treatment, ginger has also been shown to be a powerful antioxidant and anticoagulant. Whether taken in pill form, in tea, or in a juice, it may counteract some of that hungover wooziness. A 2001 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology showed that ginger counteracted nausea and vomiting in pregnant women, and if it can combat morning sickness, it can deal with a little morning-after sickness, right? Be aware: Fresh ginger can irritate the stomach lining, so it should never be taken straight on an empty stomach.

8. Soups such as menudo, haejangguk, pho, or borscht. Soups hold an honored place as hangover cures in many countries, with various ingredients, such as tomatoes, cabbage, and tripe, ascribed medicinal qualities. Medicine or no medicine, soup will certainly rehydrate the dehydrated, pump up the protein and blood sugar levels, and slow the rate of alcohol absorption. The vegetables will offer some nutrition, and the heat and spices will make you sweat, releasing toxins.

9. Honey. Like fruit juice, honey has a lot of fructose and glucose, and it’s full of antioxidants, which, according to London’s Royal Society of Chemistry, makes it the ideal hangover remedy, spread on toast. In Poland, they mix the honey into a little pickle juice. (The salt replenishes electrolytes.) Yum.

10. Hangover pills. Classified as dietary supplements (so they’re not regulated) and sold under names like Sob’r-K Hangover Stopper, Soberfast, RU-21, Rebound, and Uncle Rummie’s Hangover Helper, these hangover treatments mostly rely on pharmaceutical-grade activated carbon or charcoal, which can be used to treat alcohol poisoning. Although no independent studies have been done, some people swear by them. Others point out that the pills contain so little activated charcoal that they may well have no effect.