The music is lively, the company's fantastic and the drinks are going down well. Really well. You don't notice, though, because you're having such a great time. And by the time you do realize you've probably had a little too much to drink, you don't care. Because now you're tipsy. Drunk. Blotto. The next morning you regret your actions because you wake up with a pounding headache, queasy stomach and insatiable thirst. Yep, you've got a nasty hangover.
In the U.S., hangovers cost $224 billion in 2006 due to related absenteeism and poor job performance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And interestingly, it's the light to moderate drinkers responsible for most of this cost, not the problem drinkers [source: Wiese et al.]. If you've ever suffered from a hangover, your friends have probably given you loads of advice on how to mitigate its nasty effects. Or maybe you all discussed ways to prevent a hangover before you started partying. But how much of this advice is sound, and how much is just hearsay? Before you head out to your next bacchanal, read on to learn the truth versus fiction when it comes to hangovers.
Dehydration Causes Hangovers
It's true you can get dehydrated if you consume a lot of alcohol. Drinking booze makes you urinate more, which in turn dehydrates you. However, it's not the dehydration itself that causes a hangover. After a night of boozing, you can chug a few glasses of water and completely rehydrate yourself, yet still wake up with a splitting headache and a sour stomach. That's because several factors combine to create a hangover, mainly a drop in blood sugar (which can cause shakiness, moodiness and weakness), excess stomach irritation (stomachache, nausea and vomiting), poor sleep quality (which makes you tired) and dilated blood vessels (here comes the headache) [sources: National Public Radio, Nordqvist].
People may tell you to drink a lot of water before you start downing booze, for example, or alternate alcoholic drinks with water. Or if you forget to do that, they might advise to have a big glass of water before going to bed. Being dehydrated may cause you some lightheadedness and a sense of thirst -- so definitely do drink some water before bed and when you wake up -- but know that it's not the source of your hangover.
Only Binge Drinkers Get Hangovers
Binge drinking, or downing an excessive amount of alcohol in a short time, is definitely one way to almost guarantee a hangover the next day. However, you certainly don't have to be a binge drinker to experience one. In fact, some people can get a hangover after just one little drink. How is this possible?
Whether you'll have a hangover after drinking depends on numerous factors, including your body size and sex. The average man will have some kind of hangover after knocking back five to eight drinks, while a woman will only have to down three to five for the same effect [source: Johns Hopkins Medicine]. In addition, your ethnicity can play a factor in how prone you are to a hangover. The Japanese, for example, tend to develop hangovers after fewer drinks because their bodies are genetically less able to break down acetaldehyde, alcohol's main byproduct. Suffer from migraines? Then you're probably more prone to hangovers, too, as are those who are taking certain medications that affect liver enzymes. Ironically, those who drink liquor regularly often are less likely to become drunk or to suffer a hangover the next morning [sources: Hudepohl, Johns Hopkins Medicine].
Men and Women Are Equally at Risk
If you're female, beware. You're more likely to be greeted with a pounding headache, stomachache and cotton-mouth the day after drinking than a male, even if you're the same height, size and weight. How can this be?
Men's bodies contain a higher percentage of water than women's bodies -- 55 to 65 percent for men, 45 to 55 percent for women -- which helps dilute any alcohol they consume [source: Cornell University]. Men also have more gastric alcohol dehydrogenase in their bodies, an enzyme that helps metabolize alcohol. This means men are able to break down booze when it's still in their stomach -- before it reaches their bloodstream and starts affecting their blood alcohol concentration, or BAC.
Another contributing factor? Women have a higher percentage of fat in their bodies. And fat can't absorb alcohol. Finally, female hormonal changes can affect their BAC. Studies show women will maintain their peak degree of intoxication longer than normal if they're taking oral contraceptives and during the week before they menstruate. All of these factors combined mean a woman will pretty much always become more intoxicated than a similarly sized man, even if she ingests a smaller amount of alcohol [sources: Cornell University, Hudepohl, WebMD].
Wine or Beer Is a Safer Choice
Many people swear it's better to drink wine or beer than hard liquor. There's even a little ditty to help you remember what to do when you might want to drink several different alcoholic beverages in one evening: "Beer before liquor, never sicker. Liquor before beer, never fear." So many misconceptions!
First, you can get drunk on any type of alcohol -- wine, beer, hard liquor and diet cocktails. And it doesn't matter in which order you've consumed them, it just matters how much total alcohol you've ingested into your system. That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Red wine has tannins, which can cause some people to develop headaches. If that's you, over-imbibing in red wine might mean a more-severe hangover in the morning than a night of Tequila sours.
- Certain types of hard liquor (e.g., whiskey made with malt) also tend to give people headaches. A better choice: clear spirits such as vodka and gin.
- While diet cocktails contain fewer calories, which is good for your waistline, the fewer the calories in your drink, the faster the alcohol gets into your system -- and the drunker you become.
- If you start off your night by drinking the hard stuff, your inhibitions will decrease more quickly than if you began with a beer or glass of wine, so you'll tend to end up drinking more.
Eating Food Will Absorb Some Alcohol
If only this were true! How nice it would be to be able to drink as much as you wanted, then negate any nasty aftereffects by downing a juicy burger or some hot, salty fries. (Is that why we like a greasy spoon after a night of drinking?) Food can definitely help prevent a hangover. But you have to eat before you start drinking for this to occur. If you've eaten first, your stomach will be busy digesting your meal once you start knocking them back.
Fatty foods like pizza take the longest time to digest and are your best choice. Any alcohol you ingest will thus reach your bloodstream more slowly. This means you'd have to drink quite a bit of booze and/or drink for a long time to become drunk and develop a hangover. Haven't eaten much since lunch? Then it won't take too many martinis to become inebriated. Rather than gobbling down some tacos or pancakes afterward, though, it's best to drink some water before turning in for the night [source: Hudepohl].
Tylenol Will Lessen Tomorrow's Hangover
There are two errors in this common-but-mistaken belief. First, you should never take acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) when you've been drinking. Acetaminophen is an over-the-counter pain-relief medication that is processed by your liver -- the same organ responsible for metabolizing any alcohol you consume. After a lot of heavy drinking, since your liver is busy metabolizing the alcohol, any acetaminophen you take (whether Tylenol or a prescription drug containing it like Percocet or Darvocet) is processed by a different metabolic pathway, which can become toxic. You may experience liver inflammation, swelling and even permanent damage. It's much safer to take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as aspirin or ibuprofen [sources: Cicetti, Hudepohl].
But don't take that aspirin or ibuprofen right after drinking. That's the second mistaken notion. When you take one of these medications, it provides the most relief over the next few hours, when you'll likely be asleep and not feeling any pain anyway. Far better to take the pain reliever in the morning. Both of these drugs, by the way, will combat both headache pain and any inflammation in your body [source: Peterson].
A Cold Shower or Black Coffee Will Relieve You
You had one too many last night. You're exhausted and hungover and just can't get out of bed this morning. But it's time to get going, you have to be somewhere. One of your friends starts making a pot of strong coffee while the other turns on the shower, cranking the dial to cold. Without further ado you're shoved into the shower for a few minutes, then handed a cup of hot coffee. This will surely chase away your hangover and get you up and at 'em.
It's true a cold shower and hot, caffeinated coffee might perk you up a bit. But neither one will cure that hangover. That will only happen once all of the alcohol is out of your system and your body resets itself. Drinking coffee, by the way, could actually make your hangover worse. Alcohol dehydrates you, and coffee exacerbates dehydration since it's a diuretic. So swap out the coffee for water, especially if you've been vomiting, which is yet another cause of dehydration [sources: Peterson, WebMD].
The 'Hair of the Dog' Will Erase Your Pain
In medieval times, people believed that if you were bitten by a rabid dog, you'd be cured if you plucked some hair from said nasty canine and applied it to your wound. Around this same time, people also began to profess that if you suffered from a hangover, you could cure it by drinking a little more hooch – i.e., partaking of "the hair of the dog that bit me." This phrase was actually recorded as far back as 1546 by John Heywood in "A dialogue conteinyng the number in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue" [source: Martin].
Unfortunately, this longstanding belief is inaccurate. It's true that if you sip a bit of alcohol the day after you over-imbibe, you won't have a hangover -- not right away, at least. Hangovers start knocking on the door when your blood-alcohol level begins to drop; the pain is the worst when there's no alcohol left in your system. So if you pour a little more down your gullet, you'll prop up that level and forestall the hangover. But at some point you'll have to face the music and stop drinking. Your blood-alcohol level will then drop, and the hangover will hit. Rather than reaching for the bottle, you'll be better served guzzling some water or a sports drink, the latter of which can help you replace lost electrolytes as well as rehydrate you [source: Hudepohl].
Herbal Remedies Cure Hangovers
You may have seen them in the store: Drinkin' Mate. PreToxx. RU 21. Their premise sounds appealing. Simply pop one of these pills in your mouth, or dissolve the tablet in water, and you'll prevent or cure your hangover. These aids typically contain natural ingredients the manufacturers claim thwart hangovers. Drinkin' Mate, for example, contains guava leaf extract that supposedly will combat the toxins and increased free-radical activity caused by consuming alcohol. PreToxx, a vegetarian capsule with prickly pear extract and milk thistle, purportedly helps prevent hangover symptoms and, if taken daily, helps ensure healthy liver functioning.
But researchers say none of the hangover pills that have been studied are effective; at best they combat just a portion of your hangover (e.g., just cotton-mouth). So if you're trying to avoid a hangover or help your body by replacing nutrients lost by excessive alcohol consumption -- the claim some of these remedies make -- it may be better simply to take a multivitamin [sources: Harding, The BMJ].
Hangovers Are No Big Deal
Fifty percent of Americans say they've gone to work hungover, according to a study by Blowfish for Hangovers, maker of an anti-hangover dissolvable tablet. And another 20 percent have called in sick because of a hangover. That's a lot of people. So that must mean getting a one is a pretty typical thing, and not a big deal at all. Au contraire, mon frere.
When you develop a hangover, your body is crying for help. Basically, you've contaminated it with too much booze. That pounding headache? It's the alcohol messing up your central nervous system and brain chemicals. Your queasy stomach? The hooch has irritated and inflamed the lining in your gut [source: WebMD]. Sure, you may recover quickly. Or maybe you won't mind spending one day in misery after having a lot of fun. But the bottom line is that overdoing it is always risky. If you drink too much, you may develop alcohol poisoning and fall into a stupor, develop seizures or begin to breathe irregularly. You could even die. And no drink or party is remotely worth that.
Almost every nation has its own special alcoholic beverage — and hangover cure. Learn about 9 hangover cures from around the world at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Myths About Hangovers
Yes, I've had a hangover or two in my life. Luckily, they were back in my youthful days. I agree with the experts who say the best advice on dealing with a hangover is not to get one in the first place.
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