Just in time for St. Patrick’s day, CNN explores the myths and realities of hangover remedies.
A hangover is really the symptoms of acute withdrawal, in which your body reacts to not having a drug in its system anymore, said Krista Medina, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati.
Contrary to popular belief, drinking more while hung over is not going to make you feel better, doctors say. In fact, the other home remedies you may turn to, such as greasy food, probably won’t work, either.
Part of the reason there’s no good hangover remedy is that, although the phenomenon has probably been around since humans discovered alcohol, there’s no single scientifically proven reason for a hangover, although there are correlations with the various symptoms of the “Irish flu.” “There probably won’t be a known effective treatment until we understand the physiology better,” said Dr. Sharon Horesh Bergquist, assistant professor in the department of medicine at Emory University.
What is a hangover?
One theory blames chemicals in some alcoholic drinks called congeners, said Dr. Samir Zakhari, director of the division of metabolism and health effects at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. These congeners, which could be toxic, contribute to alcohol’s unique taste, but they can also interfere with cell function and leave some lasting physical marks. A 2009 study from Brown University found that the darker the liquor, the more congeners it has, which could exacerbate headaches and other hangover symptoms.
A different theory contends that drinking causes dehydration because alcohol increases urine output. Alcohol inhibits the release of an antidiuretic hormone, meaning the kidneys don’t conserve water as well, and you urinate more, Bergquist said.
[E]ating greasy foods after a night of drinking probably won’t make you feel better, Zakhari said. “If a person wants to eat, that’s fine,” he said. “They should do that during drinking or before drinking, not after. Because if people eat after drinking, it might be too late.” By the time you have a hangover, eating greasy fare won’t have much of an effect in alleviating the symptoms, he said. Bland foods, on the other hand, elevate your blood sugar and settle your stomach, according to the Mayo Clinic. Stick to toast and crackers.
This belief that drinking more alcohol will alleviate the symptoms of too much drinking “doesn’t make sense,” Zakhari said. “You already probably have done enough damage to the different parts of the body like the liver and heart,” he said. “You don’t want to go back and put more alcohol on top of that.”
Small studies have shown that, if taken in very large amounts, vitamin B6 may reduce the symptoms of a hangover, Bergquist said. Still, this research did not include many participants and is not definitive. “There are anecdotes about these things without any evidence,” said Dr. James C. Garbutt, a professor of psychiatry in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, who specializes in alcoholism treatment and research. “Medical science doesn’t spend a lot of time treating hangovers. We want to try to prevent them.”
Other supposed remedies include activated charcoal, which is supposed to absorb alcohol from the stomach but actually wouldn’t work because the hangover occurs hours after drinking, Swift said. “The most outlandish thing is that people who feel badly obviously want to feel better, so they’re willing to try untested remedies,” he said.
There, however, are some natural remedies that some doctors think merit further research, including prickly pear cactus extract and yeast-based preparations, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some also believe that the borage plant yields a supplement that may help with headache, laziness and tiredness.
Doctors do agree that water will help somewhat with hangover symptoms because, as noted above, dehydration is often a symptom.
Zakhari also recommends getting rest. Medina noted that ibuprofen may help with headaches, and caffeine may help boost energy, but no treatments get at the underlying condition of hangover; they only ease symptoms, she said.
My practice has been to avoid getting hangovers in the first place, through a combination of moderating alcohol intake, increasing intake of non-alcoholic fluids, and mixing drinking with eating. In the rare instances where I’ve miscalculated on this score, I do find that a combination of drinking large quantities of electrolyte replacement beverages (sports drinks such as Gatorade) and caffeine help speed recovery.
The piece also mentions the Bloody Mary, easily the most popular hangover “cure.” What it doesn’t say is that, while consuming vodka while hung over is likely a bad idea, the tomato juice and capsaicin-rich pepper sauce are both good for you. The more healthful concoction — a “virgin” Bloody Mary — is jokingly known as a “Bloody Shame” but nonetheless the wiser choice if you’ve overindulged.