With New Year’s Eve around the corner, exuberant imbibing is in full effect. But there’s a price to pay for all that merriment.
“Dry mouth, pounding headaches, sometimes nausea, just overall feeling like crap," lists Annie Kuo, a 26-year-old graduate student at Boston University who knows the symptoms of a hangover all too well.
“You know a hangover is coming when your friends have just ordered yet another round of tequila shots. (The next morning) you wake up and it hits you and you swear that you will never drink again,” Kuo says. “But we all know that's a lie! The next Friday night you will have already forgotten about your terrible hangover from the weekend before.”
The surest way to avoid a hangover, obviously, is to not drink. Abstinence is the only guaranteed way to avoid that splitting headache the next day. But temptation is everywhere this time of year. So let’s just accept many of us are going to drink — lots. Is there anything you can do to head off the headache? And the nausea? And the morning-after death wish?
In fact, there are steps you can take to protect yourself, but it takes a little forethought.
Fill up on food first
First, don’t drink on an empty stomach. A full tummy slows down the body’s absorption of alcohol and helps protect against irritation and vomiting, says Aaron White, an assistant research professor in psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
"Alcohol itself increases acid secretion in the stomach and that can make you feel nauseous. Having food in your stomach will help minimize impact of that acid, and will help buffer the effect of alcohol,” he says.
Even the kinds of foods you eat can help keep a hangover at bay. Some experts urge salty foods because they'll encourage you to drink plenty of water. Others recommend eating something substantial like carbs and fatty foods before a night of partying.
“Carbohydrates are helpful because they make low blood sugar less likely and ease nausea,” says Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld, a professor of clinical medicine at Cornell University's Weill Medical College.
In addition to drinking lots of water, Rosenfeld also recommends orange juice or other fruit juices because they help prevent low blood sugar as well as dehydration.
“The trick to preventing a hangover is preventing blood-alcohol level from rising very high. The kinds of food you eat, its overall effect is very minimal. The important thing is to have some food in your stomach before you start drinking, and while you’re drinking," White adds.
Take heed, ladies. Even if you’ve been resisting all those holiday treats to fit into that little black New Year’s Eve dress, it's worth it to indulge in high-carb snacks for a night when you're drinking.
A 2003 study by Dr. Wendy Slutske of the University of Missouri in Columbia found that women suffer the effects of a hangover — namely, headaches, hurling, lack of concentration and dehydration — more severely than men. Likely, Slutske says, it's because women tend to weigh less and have less water in their bodies.
What about vitamins? From her experience out in the field — that is, the thriving Manhattan cocktail scene — Yuri Kato, publisher of the online Cocktail Times, swears by vitamin C.
A bunch of Web sites also recommend multivitamins to help curb hangover symptoms, but experts including Dr. Linda Degutis, associate professor of surgery and public health at Yale University, are doubtful: “Taking certain vitamins before drinking is unlikely to make any difference in whether or not you have a hangover,” Degutis says.
It's not too late to minimize the damage even once you start drinking. Remember, sip, don’t slurp. Try limiting yourself to one drink an hour. In other words, skip the beer bong. Same goes for any shots that your so-called friends try to impose you. Believe us: Feeling good in that moment won’t be worth the price you’ll pay come morning.
Also, try pacing yourself by downing water between alcoholic concoctions, recommends Degutis.
“In fact, alternating drinking an alcoholic beverage with water (or another non-alcoholic beverage such as fruit juice) will both keep you from drinking too much, and help you to stay hydrated," she says. Some of the worst symptoms of a hangover — including that pounding headache — are caused by dehydration, she notes.
Your drink of choice also plays a big role in how much you’ll feel it later.
One theory pins hangover symptoms on the toxic byproducts left behind when your body metabolizes alcohol. Largely to blame are congenors, biologically active compounds present in some alcohol, which trigger inflammation and that achy, flu-like Wish-I-Were-Dead-But-Wait-It-Feels-Like-I-Am condition. Generally, the darker your drink, the more congenors.
So, watch out for brandy and whiskey. Clearer alcohols, like vodka, gin or white rum, are less likely to cause a hangover. In fact, researchers put the theory to the test and found boozing on bourbon caused a worse hangover than drinking vodka. Other things to consider when you're beckoning the bartender:
- Don't scrimp. Cheap booze gives you a worse hangover. That's because the producers of expensive alcohol filter out more impurities. "More expensive liquors are generally likely to contain fewer congenors," Rosenfeld says.
- Mind your mixer. An Aussie study released in the spring showed that diet mixers tends to send alcohol into your bloodstream quicker. The study was only done on men, so the metabolism in women could be different, but researchers at Australia's Royal Adelaide Hospital found that low-cal drinks make you drunker quicker..
Degutis recommends staying away from Red Bull and the like. "Despite popular belief, coffee, or other caffeine-containing beverages do not keep you from experiencing the effects of alcohol,” she says. “Caffeine may make you feel more awake, but the effect that alcohol has on your reflexes, and its other effects, will remain."
Remember to stay the course when it comes to what you’re drinking. If you believe in “beer before liquor, never sicker” you already know that. But it's not for the reason you think. “Alcohol is the same molecule in every beverage. The drug stays the same, whether it’s beer, wine and liquor. What really bothers people in the end is all the stuff you’re adding to your stomach that can cause nausea. It has nothing to do with mixing alcohol,” White says.
The bottom line is that alcohol is alcohol. “What really matters is how much alcohol you consume over the course of the day or evening,” Degutis emphasizes.
In search of a quick fix
Still, there's no surefire cure for a hangover, partly because there aren't many people out there researching it.
“A hangover isn’t something that’s studied very much even though it afflicts lots of folks. Maybe people think you deserve it?” says Dr. Robert Swift, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School.
While there's little science out there, there are plenty of over-the-counter remedies that claim to prevent hangovers — pills with names like Chaser, Sob'r-K Hangover Stopper and RU-21. These types of "cures" usually contain ingredients like vitamins or carbon (which is supposed to filter out alcohol's impurities). The catch is, apart from testing by their manufacturers, there's no research as to whether they work or not.
"Some of them make sense — at least theoretically," Rosenfeld says. "For example, RU-21 contains ingredients which interfere with the metabolism of alcohol, but I don't know of any scientific studies that have been done to confirm its action. The Internet contains literally hundreds of 'cures' and I don't think any of them really make a difference."
Some scientists say since hangovers cost society millions they should be studied more rigorously. According to a recent study of 13,500 Australian workers — what is it about them, anyhow? — hangovers cost Aussie companies $430 million a year in lost work days. And those who called in sick as a result of those pounding headaches weren’t raging alkies, either, but light drinkers who went beyond their limits one night.
Before you hit the sack
Once you've already gone overboard, is there anyway to head off the hangover?
If you’re feeling nauseous after a night out on the town, it’s probably best to let your body do what it needs to do. So, if you feel the urge to purge before going to bed, do it.
“Alcohol is an enjoyable poison and if you feel sick, that is in large part, all tied to the fact your body has been poisoned,” White says. “Vomiting is ... a last ditch effort to get it out of your system. The body wants it out. If you don’t let it out your body is going to suffer.”
Just remember, that’s going to dehydrate you, so drinks lots of water after and in the morning, and maybe something with electrolytes in it like Gatorade to replenish what’s been lost.
Kuo, the Boston University grad student, also has some empirically tested advice: “The nights where you are sober enough to stop in the kitchen and pour yourself a glass of water are the nights where you do not have to worry about hurting the next day (but you should drink some water anyway)."
The most important advice for preventing a hangover: Drinker, know thyself.
“Understand who you are and what type of body you have — we react to alcohol differently. Certain things that make you sick or don’t make you feel good, stay away from it,” Kato says.
Athima Chansanchai is a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.