Feb. 4, 2011 at 10:00 AM ET
Some people swear by bacon. Or Red Bull. Or a big bacon cheeseburger with fries -- the greasier the better.
Thanks to new research out of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, though, we now know the exact cause of the hangover headache and the Absolut … er … absolute best way to get rid of them. (And no, it’s not a hair of the dog that bit you.)
Turns out, the scientifically-proven best hangover cure may be plain old coffee and aspirin.
As Dr. Michael L. Oshinsky explains, alcohol in the body is metabolized to acetaldehyde, and then to acetate. “The dogma has always been that acetaldehyde causes the headache because it’s poisonous,” says Oshinsky, assistant professor for the department of neurology at Thomas Jefferson University. “But there’s been no direct evidence to demonstrate that.”
So Oshinsky and his colleagues decided to investigate what actually causes hangover headaches -- by throwing a series of parties for their lab rats.
“We used 190 proof, medical proof alcohol and gave them the equivalent of one shot,” says Oshinsky, director of preclinical research at the Jefferson Headache Center. “It was like drinking one beer or one mixed drink or one glass of wine. It was a very small amount of alcohol – we just gave it to them in a pure form.”
In order to pinpoint the exact cause of the hangover headache, the researchers separated the strings of the alcohol metabolism process.
The first step was to block the breakdown of the alcohol, but that didn’t have an effect, i.e., the rats continued to party, headache-free. Then they blocked the breakdown of the acetaldehyde by giving the rats antabuse, the drug given to chronic alcoholics. (Antabuse prevents the breakdown of acetaldehyde to acetate, which causes shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and other unpleasant side effects.)
“The rats didn’t get a headache,” he says, explaining that they do sensory testing around the head and face of the animal to detect the presence of a headache. “Although there was a decrease in the analgesic response. We couldn’t tell if they were nauseous, though. Rats don’t throw up.”
Finally the researchers shot the rats full of acetate, the final step in the alcohol metabolism chain.
“Sure enough, they got a headache,” says Oshinsky. “Then we gave them a higher dose and they got more of headache for a longer amount of time.”
Oshinsky says their research disproved other commonly held beliefs such as hangover headaches are caused by dehydration or congeners, substances produced during fermentation that are responsible for the taste, aroma and color of the alcohol.
Once the source of the hangover headache was located, the researchers then set about figuring out how to get rid of the pesky things, using known headache blockers. Turns out the combination of caffeine and over-the-counter inflammatory drugs (i.e., NSAIDs – things like aspirin and ibuprofen) were best at blocking the head-pounding effects of the acetate.
Although as with everything, timing is crucial.
“If you drink a small amount of alcohol, three or four hours later, drink some coffee,” he says. “Or take caffeine in some form, like an Excedrin that has caffeine in it. If you take the caffeine at the same time as you drink, it will be gone when the acetate levels are high.”
As for those greasy hamburgers, he says, they’re definitely not the way to go.
“I don’t see what the mechanism for that would be,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to take an NSAID with a cup of coffee or tea.”
Marina Frykholm says the caffeine and aspirin route sounds feasible, but she’d rather stick with her tried and true hangover cure -- frozen mango.
“I lay flat on my back and put part of a frozen bag of mangos on my forehead,” says the 29-year-old TV advertising/promotions associate from Seattle. “And I only move to put partially defrosting chunks of mango in my mouth.”