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Finally, a reputable news publication had the courage to tackle a real issue. “Dear Science” is a new advice column published by the Washington Post that takes on user questions and uses (you guessed it) science to solve reader problems. This week’s topic? Hangovers.
Dear Science: How do I prevent my horrible hangovers? Isn’t there any way to make it stop?
Shoutout to WaPo for diving into this. Let’s break it down.
At least part of hangover stems from the way alcohol is metabolized. Enzymes in your liver break down ethanol, the ingredient that makes alcohol so intoxicating, into a compound called acetaldehyde. It’s highly toxic — the International Agency for Research on Cancer says it should be classified a carcinogen — and triggers an unpleasant inflammatory response. A 2000 study found that elevated acetaldehyde levels lead to increased skin temperature, facial flushing, elevated heart rate, lower blood pressure, dry mouth, nausea and headache. (Long term, it’s also a cause of liver cirrhosis.)
This is boilerplate hangover talk, but I’m glad they mentioned facial flushing because it’s a very underrated portion of your hangover. Headache and nausea get all of the glory, but have you ever been at the grocery store on a Sunday morning and felt your face turn red for no damn reason? It’s awful, and I call upon science to find a cure. You’re on notice.
Acetaldehyde only lives in your gut for a very brief period, but if you drink too fast, the enzymes responsible for breaking it down into the more benign chemical acetate won’t be able to keep up. So the advice you got from your college health counselor freshman year — pace yourself, alternate alcohol with water — is actually pretty good.
Moderation and pacing – if you grew up and didn’t hear both of these from your parents, they probably didn’t love you. For the rest of us, we’ve tried and failed to implement this practice. It just doesn’t work. Show up to a young professionals event or junior league and tell me you can pace yourself. Since 75% of the social interactions you have in your twenties are just awkward, you have no choice but to rapidly polish off Tito’s and sodas in lieu of actually conversing with other humans. We need more realistic ideas if we’re going to stand a chance here, guys.
“The challenge is it’s a lot more complicated than anybody wants it to be,” said John McGeary, a clinical psychologist at Brown University and member of the international Alcohol Hangover Research Group. (Yes, that is a real thing, and no, its membership is not composed of frat guys.)
“There’s not really great consistent evidence [for any one cause] and that’s probably due to the fact that it’s such a complicated problem that’s caused by many small effects that all together make you miserable,” he added. “There’s a tremendous difficulty in pinning down any one source … so the bottom line is we still don’t exactly know what causes a hangover.”
Didn’t some guy get a head transplant a few years back? How are we still treading water on this issue? This is the world’s number one coping mechanism, and we demand answers.
The nasty effects of acetaldehyde can be exacerbated by congeners, the chemical extras that result from fermentation. These compounds are part of what make each alcohol distinctive, but they can also make their hangovers more potent. Studies suggest that dark alcohols, which have more congeners, contribute to worse hangovers than light ones; mixing alcohols — thereby mixing congeners — may make that effect even worse.
We should all know this by now. Everyone should have their go-to drink, and the ability to stick with it separates the men from the boys. That’s right. Turn down the shots. Say no to the 40-dollar bottle of wine your buddy opened up at his apartment after a long day of drinking Modelo at the pool. He just wants to impress you, but you must respectfully decline. My move? I’m #TeamNoSoda, and I rarely order dark liquor. Yep, I’m almost exclusively a vodka guy now. Got a problem with a dude who kinda looks like Putin tossing back a few Deep Eddys? Swing on me.
Ethanol, alcohol’s active ingredient, also messes with your body in various ways. It suppresses the hormone that helps your body retain water, meaning that for every ounce of alcohol you consume, you’ll have to pee eight times that amount. That will leave you dehydrated, which hardly helps your morning after nausea and headache, so it is a good idea to drink water during and after drinking.
Love this advice. I’d love to drink more water when I’m out, but it turns out I’m trying to get drunk, so…yeah.
These factors will contribute to your hangover, but whether or not you get one isn’t always up to you. How your body handles alcohol is largely a product of genetics. Some lucky people — roughly a quarter of the population, according to a 2008 literature review — do not get hangovers at all. Other groups, particularly people from East Asia, have a genetic variant that makes it harder for them to metabolize acetaldehyde, so their hangovers are much worse.
No way the number is that high. I’ve legitimately met one human that claimed to never get hangovers, and that little run of his recently ended. I legit felt bad for him because that’s basically like losing a super power. Now he’s just another miserable SOB like the rest of us drinking pear juice, coconut water, or whatever new internet hangover fad that won’t work is popular at the time.
There’s a tendency to view drinking as a vice, and hangovers as our rightful punishment. But hangovers cost an estimated $224 billion in lost productivity each year in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And McGeary thinks that understanding what causes hangovers can help researchers better understand why people drink — and how to help them when they drink to excess.
At this point, it’s a national security crisis. We can’t be great again if we’re taking advil and pounding G2. Let’s invest in our productivity and end this once and for all.
A review of research in the British Medical Journal tested dozens of purported “remedies” for hangovers — including cabbage, coffee, eggs, and a disgusting concoction involving olive oil, raw egg yolk, tomato ketchup, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and buttermilk — and found “no compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover.” The scientists especially don’t recommend “hair of the dog” — drinking more alcohol in the morning. At best, it just dulls your senses for a while, delaying the inevitable. And it can make your misery only worse.
There’s not much you can do aside from drink water, take a pain reliever (but not acetaminophen, because your poor liver needs a break) and ride it out. Your body will thank you. And then quietly ask if next time, possibly, you’ll consider drinking a little less.
Hair of the dog is the modern American philosophy. Just delay the inevitable. National debt? We’ll worry about that later. Social Security? Not my problem yet, player. Hangovers? Let’s do brunch.
So what did we learn here? Pace yourself, don’t mix booze, don’t drink dark booze, drink water, don’t have fun, and just don’t drink at all..
[via Washington Post]
Image via Shutterstock