Following one too many heavy nights in a row, Gerard Westhoff questions why we get hangovers and how to prevent them
It’s 2am. It has been a pretty standard Sports Nite – a couple of cans at home, a few pints of snakebite in Phineas, and then several double vodka cokes in Loop. You’re getting a bit sick of the awful music, the sweat dripping off the ceiling onto your skin, and the boorish Rugby lads who keep thwarting your lame attempts to pull. You start to think it’s about time to call it a night and begin to head for the exit when your mate Dave taps you on the shoulder, hands you a glass, and utters those all destructive words: ‘one more for the road?’
You wake up the next morning. Pneumatic drills are pounding inside your head, your mouth is as dry as sandpaper and everything’s slightly blurry. You get out of bed and attempt to stagger to the sink to get some water, fighting the dizziness with every step. But you don’t make it in time and end up throwing up in the bin. You realise that you are fighting a losing game and retreat to the sanctuary of your bed. You will be giving lectures a miss today. You’re hungover.
We’ve all been there. Hangovers are a seemingly unavoidable part of university life and the only sure-fire way of avoiding them is abstention from drinking alcohol – which is an unlikely option for most students. So discounting abstention, how can we avoid or cure hangovers? To answer that question, let’s first investigate the causes of hangovers.
The most commonly cited explanation for hangover symptoms is dehydration. Alcohol in the bloodstream causes the pituitary gland to suppress production of an anti-diuretic hormone. This results in the kidney sending water direct to the bladder without much being reabsorbed into the body, ergo you pee more when drunk. This leads to dehydration symptoms such as a dry mouth and headaches. So the cure for a hangover is drinking water, right? Wrong.
In contrast to popular thought, a recent study by Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that drinking a few glasses of water after a night on the lash won’t cure your hangover but it will cure your thirst and dry mouth. The study, based on the drinking habits of Canadian and Dutch students, also concluded that eating food after drinking has negligible effect on the next morning’s hangover too. So you can forgo that 3am stopover at McDonald’s. The lead author of the study, Dr Joris Verster, suggested that the cause of hangovers is not purely due to dehydration and that the immune system may play bigger role than we previously thought.
Dr Verster also leads the Alcohol Hangover Research Group, an international collaboration of the world’s foremost experts on the symptoms that follow booze-heavy nights. Researchers from the group have found some supporting evidence for the theory that hangovers are an inflammatory response, similar to as if the body’s immune system was fighting off infection. A study by a team in Korea detected heightened levels of cytokines in hungover people, molecules which are used to send signals by the immune system. Heightened levels of cytokines have been shown to correspond to nausea, headaches, tiredness and memory loss, all of which are major hangover symptoms.
If this research linking hangovers to an inflammatory response is proven correct, it leads us to our first potential hangover cure: anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen.
DITCH THE WINE AND WHISKY
Another factor that is thought to affect the severity of hangovers is the presence of compounds called congeners in alcoholic drinks. Found primarily in dark drinks such as red wine and whisky; congeners are a by-product of fermentation that have the role of flavouring and colouring a drink. Various studies have linked a higher concentration of congeners to more severe hangover symptoms, so by avoiding these drinks and sticking to clear spirits like vodka, you can decrease the severity of your hangovers.
LINING THE STOMACH
Most people swear by a greasy meal before a night out to line the stomach in the hopes of avoiding a hangover the next day. But does it work? Well, yes and no.
As anyone who has drunk on an empty stomach will know, the effect of alcohol will hit you faster. Alcohol is absorbed fairly rapidly into the bloodstream through the stomach walls and so the fuller your stomach, the slower you will get drunk. But you will still get just as drunk and hungover. The main benefit of lining the stomach is to prevent alcohol from over-irritating your stomach lining and causing you to prematurely evacuate your stomach contents all over the dance floor.
SO WHAT’S THE CURE?
We know that there is water for the dehydration, ibuprofen for the inflammation, and avoiding congeners for lessening the hangover severity, but scientists are still uncertain on the primary causes of a hangover and how to cure them. The only concrete advice scientists can provide at present is to drink less and to drink responsibly.
However, this author still intends to stick to his tried and tested usual hangover remedy: Lucozade, bacon and a healthy dose of ibuprofen.
Featured image credit: Michal Jarmoluk