Let’s face it: Any of us who have suffered a hangover (back in the day) know how awful a night of boozing makes you feel. Dizziness, nausea, a stabbing headache, dreadful fatigue, inability to concentrate, rapid heart rate — these are all signs of a good time gone wrong. Should you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, there are some ways to ease the pain, but remember that the reason you’re suffering is because your body is reacting to a night of mistreatment. It’s always better to avoid a hangover than try to cure one.
Still, even reasonable adults might find themselves in this condition from time to time, so we turned to a few ER docs to break down hangover science and offer some advice for how to avoid them, and what to do after booze gets the best of you.
YOUR HANGOVER PLAY-BY-PLAY
Hangovers are still a bit of a mystery to doctors and scientists, but one thing we know for sure: There is no single factor that causes the many side effects from too much booze. There are multiple things at play. For starters, alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it makes you urinate more frequently, according to Alexis Halpern, MD, Emergency Medicine physician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. All that fluid loss leads to dehydration, which causes many notorious hangover symptoms.
As you metabolize alcohol, the liver releases byproducts, such as acetaldehyde, explains Medell Briggs, MD, MPH, MSHS, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at UCLA Health. “Acetaldehyde, can cause a rapid pulse, flushing, nausea and vomiting,” she explains.
There’s also the matter of what you’re drinking. Congener, an additive in some alcohol, like brandy, may make matters even worse. And alcohol content varies depending on your sips, so drinks with a higher percentage of alcohol are going to add to your morning-after unhappiness.
Then you have what Dr. Halpern calls, ‘the mixer effect.’ “Sugary mixers have a diuretic effect on their own, and sugar can also cause headaches, so something like a margarita mix or other sweetened mixer can amplify the harsh effects of a hangover,” she explains.
“Alcohol can also irritate the stomach lining, causing pain, nausea, and vomiting,” says Dr. Briggs. And it can lead to decreased blood sugar and disturbed sleep, both of which leave you drained.
BEATING THE ODDS
Obviously, the ER docs caution against overdoing it in the first place. (You knew that was coming.) But next time you’re heading out for a few, some simple steps can make all the difference. For starters, Dr. Briggs says, “Never drink on an empty stomach. And think about your drinks. Recall that beverages that contain congeners or a higher percentage of alcohol are going to cause more trouble than the alternatives,” she adds.
“People often forget to drink water while drinking wine or other cocktails,” adds Dr. Halpern who says that “hydrating throughout the whole night will help you the most.” Continuing to snack as the night goes on is another smart move.
And though the reminder may seem unnecessary, it’s worth repeating: Stop when you’ve reached your limit.
TOO LATE. NOW WHAT?
A big step toward getting back on your feet is to deal with dehydration. Whenever you lose a lot of fluids — be it from a marathon session at the gym or a night of excess — you can have an electrolyte imbalance. “Vomiting makes matters even worse,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD Medical Director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Pedialyte has the same balance of electrolytes as your body, so it’s good for rehydrating and replenishing what you’ve lost,” she adds.
Pedialyte has the same balance of electrolytes as your body, so it’s good for rehydrating and replenishing what you’ve lost.
Just be sensible about it, suggests Dr. Halpern. Though it’s made for kids, it’s still a medical treatment so follow the directions on the package and don’t overdo it.
As for those other electrolyte-containing drinks, such as Gatorade and Powerade, they don’t provide the same balance of minerals that Pedialyte offers, and they’re often loaded with sugar, but they could still help in a pinch. Dr. Halpern suggests mixing them with plain water to keep tabs on added sugars. For a natural alternative, she recommends coconut water, which packs an impressive amount of the electrolyte potassium. Having it with a snack, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-wheat bread, will provide additional nourishment, boost blood-sugar levels, and help you get over the hump.
Plain old water helps, too, but it doesn’t contain the electrolytes that help bring your body back to life. Dr. Briggs adds that, “while these beverages may ease your suffering, hangovers have multiple causes so there’s no magic cure. In addition to hydrating and eating a small snack, take ibuprofen for headaches and body aches.” She cautions against Tylenol (also known as acetaminophen) “because it’s also metabolized by the liver and can cause liver damage if an excessive amount of alcohol was consumed.” And since alcohol also causes sleep disturbances, don’t forget the power of a good nap.
NEXT: What you should eat if you have a hangover
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