Ask A Scientist: Hangover Cures
Question: “It’s been a hard holiday season on Mr. Liver. Is there anything I can eat or drink to cure a hangover that ACTUALLY works?” -Rupert J Brooklyn
Answer: Honestly, not really. The only guaranteed hangover cure is time. There are, however, things that will perhaps shorten the time spent recovering a bit.
But first, it helps to know what exactly a hangover is and how it’s caused in order to lessen the effects before one happens. In a nutshell, hangovers are disincentives to alcohol abuse. That being said, there are three widely recognized factors in the cause of a hangover: dehydration, hypoglycemia and acetaldehyde intoxication.
Dehydration in a hangover is caused because ethanol acts a diuretic. You drink more, you pee more. You pee too much, you get dehydrated and an electrolyte imbalance. Simple. So if you’re planning on hitting it frat boy in Cancun style, if you try to remember to alternate between an alcoholic beverage and water it may save your stupid behind in the long run.
The second factor in a hangover is hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). This happens because of the metabolic changes of the liver (as well as other organs) in response to the presence of alcohol in the system. With prolonged heavy drinking, the liver will accumulate triglycerides as well as lactic acid which can inhibit glucose production. With the inhibition of glucose production, your liver will resort to using its reserve glycogen, which is when hypoglycemia occurs. Also to note, alcoholic hypoglycemia is more common with prolonged binge drinking over days, as alcohol also irritates the stomach and intestines that leads to all the wonderful gastrointestinal problems and leads the drinker to poor nutritional choices. Again, it serves to play it safe and drink less, or perhaps to make sure to eat the garnishes from your glass while drinking.
The last factor in a hangover is acetaldehyde intoxication. Ethanol is converted to acetaldehyde by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, and then from acetaldehyde to acetic acid by the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase. That’s just a mouthful to say that your body converts all the alcohol to waste products, which you then have to flush out of your system.. with (say it with me) time. the acetaldehyde intoxication is what gives you the lethargy, the confusion and the general malaise of a hangover. As an added bonus, acetaldehyde is between 10 and 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself and is a probable carcinogen. So, the more you drink, the more your body has to convert all that alcohol.. and if you keep it up, you might end up with cancer. Great!
Now that I’ve lectured you left, right and backwards, you probably want to just know what you can eat or drink to feel better. There’s a few things that may help you feel an iota better after a bender.
One, potassium rich foods and drinks. Foods like avocado, bananas and dried apricots are chock full of potassium and shouldn’t irritate your stomach too much. If even chewing is too much to handle, you can also feebly sip Gatorade, Pedialyte or any coconut water.
Two, grease. This isn’t a licence to go hog wild, but a meal with a higher fat content may help coat your stomach. Eggs are a good call as they’re not seriously unhealthy, as would be bread dipped in olive oil. Cheese pizza or fondue might also be suitable.
Three, sugar. Honey or fruit may help do the trick as they can help rapidly restore your glucose levels.
Four: B Vitamins and complex carbohydrates. Try Vegemite or sautéed mushrooms (the non hallucinatory type, obviously) and onions on whole grain toast. Studies show that in large doses, vitamin B6 may reduce the symptoms of a hangover. Vegemite is loaded with B vitamins, as are mushrooms and onions.
Try any of those foods and it might make you feel better. Still, the key to preventing a hangover is not to get one. So next holiday season, don’t double fist your drinks at Christmas dinner or offer to show those interns how its done on the kegstands.
By Richard Nordgren, chemist