How to Avoid a Hangover
More Than Just Hair of the Dog
For those of you who have ever had a bad hangover – that dreaded combination of headache,
nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and general irritability – after a night of overindulgence
(don’t worry, we’re not judging), the only solace you’ve likely had is that you’re in good
company. American humorist and actor Robert Charles Benchley probably best summed up our
collective experience with hangovers when he said, “The only cure for a real hangover is
Mankind has probably been searching for a hangover cure since the discovery of alcoholic
fermentation. Despite having a few centuries under our belts to try and figure this one out,
it will probably come as little surprise (and even less comfort) to know that we’ve yet to
develop a surefire hangover cure that is guaranteed to work for everyone.
But human beings are nothing if not stubbornly persistent in their desire to have their cake
(booze) and eat it, too (sans hangover). As a result, science has been making some promising –
and fascinating – headway into understanding why we get hangovers, what drinks are more likely
to cause them, and what we can do to help prevent them, or lessen their impact. Here are some
interesting insights about hangovers that are the result, not of homegrown superstitions, but
of bona fide scientific study.
Not that you’ll ever need it, right?
In hundreds of years, no one has pinpointed a simple cause for hangovers
(well, beyond the fact that they result from drinking “too much” alcohol).
What we have learned is that consuming alcohol creates some fairly complex chemical
reactions in our bodies. According to a Danish study, we may respond differently to those
reactions based on age (with those over forty experiencing fewer hangovers due to less
intense drinking). Generally, people with higher body weight (usually men) can drink more
alcohol than those with lower body weight (usually women) before feeling the impacts of a
While the exact causes are still debatable, various scientific studies have narrowed
down some of the complex chemical interactions responsible for hangovers. In summary,
hangover symptoms are thought to result from toxin build-up (acetaldehyde, which is created
when the body absorbs alcohol), dehydration (alcohol is a diuretic), reactions to chemical
by-products of fermentation (called congeners), and individual genetics (specifically, your
body’s alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes)
Hangover Symptoms – the Science
When battling hangovers, it’s best to know your enemy. That’s where science comes in!
The thirst, dizziness, and light-headedness often felt after a bout of drinking are
thought to be the result of dehydration. Since alcohol is a diuretic, it promotes urine
production, which means your body is losing more water when you drink. If you don’t
replenish that water (and who’s thinking about water when they’re having a great cocktail?),
you can become dehydrated.
Based on a study from Seoul, South Korea, hangover headaches, irritation, muscle aches,
and general fatigue are thought to be the result of cytokines, which our bodies produce to
trigger inflammatory responses to infections. Alcohol consumption can trigger cytokine release,
giving you fever-like symptoms.
With particularly bad hangovers, you might also experience nausea and sweating. These
nasty symptoms are thought to be the result of your body’s reaction to acetaldehyde, a
toxin produced when your body processes alcohol. According to research done by University
of California and The Scripps Research Institute (among others), we vary in our genetic
ability to process alcohol into acetaldehyde, with those of Asian descent having highly
effective alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes, which produce acetaldehyde when interacting with
alcohol. So, for some of us, acetaldehyde can build up quickly when we’re drinking,
leading to nausea, dizziness, and other unfortunate side effects.
Not all Drinks are Hangover-Equal
When it comes to hangovers, not all drinks are created equal. The most obvious
difference is that some drinks are higher in alcohol than others, which means they
have the potential to put more alcohol into your system more quickly, potentially
leading to a hangover.
There’s a bit more to it that just ABV percentage, however. Some studies, such as one
by the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, have shown that
congeners (trace chemicals left over from fermentation) may play a role in worsening and
lengthening hangover symptoms. Drinks with more congeners (specifically methanol, prevalent
in red wines and whiskeys) were found to hang around for longer periods in the body, possibly
contributing to lingering hangover symptoms. Low-congener drinks include gin, vodka, white
wines, and beer, while whiskey, red wines, rum, and brandy have higher amounts.
The bad news: the only 100 percent sure way to prevent a hangover is to abstain from
drinking. Since you’re reading an article about hangovers, we’ll assume that’s not your
Science may yet provide us with some help in this department. Studies have shown that
your brain may react to alcohol in similar ways as it does to gamma-aminobutyric acid
(GABA) neurotransmitters. If future research can confirm this, it could lead to new
treatments for hangovers or even preventive solutions. In the meantime, here are some
tips for lessening the potential for a hangover.
First, to avoid the buildup of chemicals that seem to promote hangover symptoms, you
can drink less alcohol overall when you do drink. Drinking within your personal limits
for alcohol tolerance is always advised, but of course can be tricky (it’s not always
convenient to get details on how much alcohol is in the mixed drink that you just ordered
from the bar, for example).
To help prevent dehydration symptoms, try to drink more water than usual whenever you
are drinking alcohol, so that your body can try to maintain its normal water balance. To
help prevent hangover symptoms generally, studies suggest that drinking more slowly may help,
as might drinking after or while eating; a full digestive tract helps to slow alcohol absorption
into the body, potentially lessening hangover effects.
You probably already figured this one out, but the only sure cure for a hangover
is giving your body time to complete its normal process for dealing with alcohol.
Science has debunked most of the more popular hangover remedy myths. Among those
shown in a study in the Netherlands to have no real impact on hangovers are consuming
more alcohol (the “hair of the dog”), taking Vitamin B, or loading up on caffeine (which could
worsen dehydration symptoms). Although there is no universally agreed-upon cure for the
dreaded hangover, each country seems to have its own national remedy to help stave
off the hangover beast.
In terms of treating hangover symptoms, a combination of science and common
sense has us covered on what should be effective medicine. Hangover aches and
headaches could be inflammatory responses, so treat them with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories
(but avoid acetaminophen, as it may increase liver sensitivity while it’s processing the
toxins from the alcohol). For light-headedness, irritability, and fatigue, the best
treatment is good old-fashioned rest. For nausea, you can take over-the-counter
stomach relief medications. For dehydration symptoms, drink plenty of water, and
As for your wounded pride… well, we’re still working on how to treat that one.