A hangover is a response to alcohol withdrawal. Compared to the delirium tremens (DTs) suffered by alcoholics, it is a relatively mild response and typically it has no lingering health consequences. But it is a sign that you’ve had too much to drink.
Not everyone gets hangovers; individual susceptibility varies. The morning-after scenario depends not only on what and how much a person drinks but also on who that person is and his or her drinking history. Genetic makeup is a factor as well—for instance, some people process alcohol somewhat better than others. Some people rarely, if ever, get headaches, even after drinking.
Psychological factors are also involved—if a person expects to feel sick after drinking, he or she may be more likely to focus on symptoms.
Symptoms of Hangover
- Headache, sometimes severe
- Dry mouth, thirst
- Sour stomach, nausea, possible vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Inability to sleep
- Anxiety and depression
- Sensitivity to light and sound
What Causes Hangover?
It takes the body about two hours to burn an ounce of pure alcohol (roughly the amount in one drink) in the bloodstream. Because alcohol is removed from the blood at this rate, even one drink per hour produces a steady increase in blood alcohol levels. Hence, people who are of average size don’t have to get very drunk to suffer a hangover.
Some hangover symptoms are caused by the alcohol (or its breakdown products) remaining in the body. Other symptoms occur even after the blood alcohol level has returned to zero; these may be the after-effects of alcohol toxicity. One of the key factors behind a hangover is that alcohol acts as a diuretic: it stimulates the kidneys to pass more water than is being consumed. The dehydration that results contributes to dry mouth, sour stomach and headache.
Some alcoholic beverages are more likely to produce a bad hangover. To a large extent, booze is booze: 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits all contain the same amount of alcohol (ethanol). But some beverages, notably red wine and brandy, also contain small amounts of methanol (which is broken down much more slowly by the body) and other substances that may increase the severity of a hangover.
What If You Do Nothing?
A hangover improves as time passes. In fact, time is the only truly effective remedy for a hangover.
Home Remedies for Hangover
No sure-fire remedy for the hangover has ever been found. Perhaps that’s fortunate; if there were a cure, some people might drink more, with disastrous results.
- Pain relievers can help. NSAIDs—aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen—can help relieve a headache the morning after, as can acetaminophen. (However, pain relievers should not be taken while you are drinking in an effort to ward off a hangover. Combining alcohol with aspirin or ibuprofen may promote gastrointestinal bleeding and alcohol combined with acetaminophen increases the risk of liver damage. All pain relievers will soon carry warnings to this effect.)
- Try ice. Prepare an ice pack and apply it to the forehead (though for no more than 20 minutes at a stretch).
- Drink plenty of water. This helps counter dehydration caused by alcohol.
- Drinking coffee may help a little—but not much. Coffee and other stimulants won’t speed the elimination of alcohol from the body or alleviate hangover symptoms. They may, however, perk you up.
- Drink tomato juice.
- Exercise. This can make you sweat, which releases toxins from the body. Make sure to drink water to prevent further dehydration.
- Drinking more alcohol won’t help. In fact, it will only make things worse.
Can't You "Sleep It Off?"
You can't. Everyone knows that a person’s judgment and performance are impaired when under the influence of alcohol—but they can still be impaired the next day, too. According to a Swedish study, after an evening of heavy drinking, your driving ability may be diminished by as much as 20 percent the next morning, even though your blood alcohol level may have returned to zero. And it didn’t matter whether the subjects felt fine or awful—driving performance tended to be equally impaired.
In another study, Navy pilots had impaired judgment up to 14 hours after drinking heavily (about five to seven standard drinks or a bottle of wine in an hour or two). Anyone who has overindulged should avoid driving or operating heavy machinery the morning after.
Short of not drinking alcohol, no preventive measure is effective. Taking aspirin before drinking won't fend off a hangover. In one study, men who took two aspirin an hour before drinking ended up with alcohol levels 30 percent higher than without aspirin. Aspirin may interfere with the enzyme that breaks down alcohol, scientists theorized.
Eating (particularly fatty food) while or before drinking can slow the rate at which alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream. Before drinking, sprinkle nutmeg into a glass of milk and sip it slowly. This may help absorb and neutralize the effects of alcoholic beverages. But no matter what you eat with your drinks, don't drive.
Remember: if you're looking for a preventive or remedy for a hangover, you're probably drinking too much.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
For an ordinary hangover, you should have no reason to contact a doctor. However, habitual hangovers are one of the signs of alcohol dependence and treatment for this may require medical help.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media