Drinking is fun. Hangovers are not.
What causes us to become drunk has been studied extensively, but what causes hangovers less so. They turn us into light and sound-sensitive creatures, often unable to even look at food or drink and forcing us to remain curled up in our beds for most of the next day. We become shadows of our former selves, the one who was tearing up the dancefloor just a few hours ago.
Well, maybe we need not fear our Jekyll and Hyde switch anymore.
Through understanding what causes the hangover, we can look at solutions which will help us to wake up as fresh as a daisy the next day. The first part of this post contains a lot of science stuff but I would encourage you to read through it. However, if you are just here for the raw hangover prevention methods, you can skip ahead.
What causes hangovers?
We all know what the symptoms of a hangover are: nausea, vomiting, headaches, tiredness, loss of the will to live and swearing to not drink ever again. What is it exactly that is causing us to feel these things? Turns out there are quite a few factors in play here…
Yeah you probably already knew this. You don’t need to be a scientist to link the long queues outside of the toilets on a Saturday night with the need to pee more when drinking alcohol.
Alcohol is a diuretic, which in simpler terms means that it is a substance which helps to flush liquids out of the body. This is why you pee like a racehorse once you ‘break the seal’. With all of that liquid leaving the body, it is little wonder why you can wake up the next morning with banging headaches and a dry mouth if you don’t manage to replenish those lost liquids.
2. Acetaldehyde Toxicity and Inflammation
When alcohol enters our body, a biproduct that is broken down is a toxic substance called Acetaldehyde, which is around 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself.
The liver begins by breaking down the alcohol, and only later does it begin to break down the acetaldehyde, using an enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase.
Because the liver must first break down all of the alcohol, there is the poisonous acetaldehyde in the system long after you finish drinking. This causes an inflammatory response in the body, in the same way as if you had a wound or an illness, which then translates over to the hangover.
Unsurprisingly then, the symptoms of a hangover are often very similar to that of when we have the flu: nausea, headaches, chills, fatigue etc.
Further evidence for this is the use of the Russian drug Antabuse which is used to treat alcoholism. It temporarily prevents the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase from being produced. This means that the poisonous acetaldehyde can’t be broken down at all and the crippling effects of a hangover are almost immediate after ingesting alcohol.
Here is a nice little chart summarising most of what we have found out so far:
3. GABA and Glutamate Rebound
Okay so we have covered all of the flu-like physical symptoms, but what about sleep quality and grogginess?
We have two main culprits, GABA and Glutamate.
GABA, or gamma aminobutyric acid, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that interacts with the brain. Put simply, it means that higher levels of GABA causes a sedating effect. Alcohol tricks the brain into thinking that it has MORE GABA than it actually does. This results in the relaxation, lowered inhibitions and slurred words we associate with being drunk.
Glutamate has the opposite properties of GABA, an excitatory neurotransmitter which causes a rise in brain activity, heart rate and energy levels. Alcohol causes the brain to think that is has LESS Glutamate than it actually does. Hence why people don’t do a whole lot of thinking when they are drunk.
Therefore while you are drinking, the brain proudces much less GABA than it should because it thinks it has more. It tries to produce more Glutamate because it thinks it has less.
During the night as the alcohol starts to wear off, your brain realised it has been tricked by the alcohol and goes into a sort of overdrive to return GABA and Glutamate to normal levels. This higher-than-normal brain activity is caused by the ‘rebound effect’ from the two neurotransmitters which is usually the point in the night where you will wake up and have trouble getting back to sleep, even if you have only slept a mere 4 hours.
Hangover Prevention and Cures
Although science hasn’t yet got all of the solutions to hangover preventions and cures, it has some pretty good suggestions. Besides, if there was a way of complete eliminating hangovers, we would all be completely broke. Physically and financially.
Here’s what we have so far:
Prevent a Hangover – Before You Go Out
- Take some multivitamins – as we saw above, inflammation is one of the biggest causes of the nastiest hangover symptoms. Get some antioxidants in you to help fight the incoming internal battles. Some multivitamins containing Vitamin B are particularly useful, but it’s also worth throwing in some antioxidants such as dark chocolate and blueberries for good measure.
- Have a substantial meal – probably not news to you if you have ever had the unfortunate experience of drinking on an empty stomach. A substantial meal consisting of plenty of carbs and protein may give you a temporary food baby, but will significantly help avoid a hangover the next day. Food helps to break down the alcohol more efficiently. Red meat is a particularly good option as it is high in Vitamin B. If you are veggie or vegan, consider supplementing it in or having fortified cereals and almond milk.
Prevent a Hangover – While You Are Out
- Stick to clear spirits – Everyone has their favourite types of drinks, but if you really need to avoid a hangover in the morning, try sticking to clear spirits. The effects of dark vs clear spirits on hangover intensity has been tested numerous times. Congeners are alcohol impurities which often give dark spirits their distinct colour and aroma. More congeners have been linked with worse hangovers.
- Avoid diet mixers – The no sugar and often no calorie properties of Diet Cokes, Diet Lemonades etc. results in alcohol heading even quicker into the bloodstream and the body having less time to process it. This contributes to a worse hangover.
- Don’t have that last tequila shot – You know you don’t really want it anyway.
Prevent a Hangover – When You Get Home
What I would consider the most important stage for prevention. If you can avoid passing out for just 10 more minutes, you might want to give these a try and thank yourself in the morning:
- Drink water, but don’t overdo it – One of my classic mistakes. Water after a night out is essential for combatting the effects of dehydration. If you overdo it though, all of that water is just going to add to the swirling cocktail of madness that you already have going inside of you. Two glasses should do the trick. If you can stomach it, coconut water is even better rehydration.
- Anti-inflammatories – If you can manage to cook up a storm of salmon and tomatoes with olive oil drizzled over when you get back from the club, then you should be pretty set for fighting that hangover. You are also superhuman. If you are a normal person like me and opted for a kebab instead, then you might want to consider taking some Ibuprofen before bed to fight your inflammation battles during the night. This has worked wonders for me recently.
- Dihydromyricetin (DHM) – One of the most fascinating discoveries I found when writing this blog post. DHM is an extract from an oriental raisin tree in China known as Hovenia Dulcis. The tree has been medically used for hundreds of years and the extract is specifically used to treat hangovers in China & other Asian nations.
It covers almost every aspect of fighting a hangover, here’s how:
SCIENCE-Y – DHM improves the ability of the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase to break down the nasty toxin acetaldehyde that we covered earlier in the post. Taking it before bed has been shown to clear the acetaldehyde at a faster pace, relieving you of hangover symptoms come the morning.
NON-SCIENCE-Y – DHM kicks the ass of the most poisonous part of alcohol.
SCIENCE-Y – DHM also blocks alcohol’s ability to influence GABA. When you take DHM after drinking, it binds to GABA receptors, stopping alcohol from influencing them further. If you take DHM before drinking, you won’t feel the effects of drunkenness. If you take it after, you will quickly sober up because as we know, GABA is partially responsible for our feelings of being drunk. Because alcohol can’t influence GABA, there is also no more rebound effect. This means no waking up after 5-6 hours feeling awful.
NON-SCIENCE-Y– DHM stops you feeling drunk and gives you a better night sleep.
I haven’t had a chance to try DHM yet, but I really want to. It stems from a natural source, has been used for hundreds of years in China and is safe for human consumption as far as modern science is concerned. My only worry however would be the abuse of the substance, as hangovers are nature’s way of telling you that drinking excessive alcohol is bad for you. Which it is, whether you manage to beat a hangover or not. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by DHM but for now will continue to use the other methods I have listed when I need to avoid a hangover the next day.
If you are interested in DHM, click on these links for more info on the research into DHM, the science behind it and what big publications like Wired have to say.
For now though, here’s to beating hangovers and coming back from the dead better than ever.
*Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor and don’t imitate one. None of this post contains medical advice, only my personal opinions based on external research.
** Header image via Warner Bros.