Drinking Alcohol: Our 7 Tips on What Helps a Hangover

Sarah Vordermeier

 

What helps a hangover? From the hair-of-the-dog approach, enjoying a carb-filled breakfast, or venturing out for some fresh air to dozing off until the misery subsides, everyone has their own hangover remedies for when they’ve had too much to drink. Science however reveals that there is only one sobering method that really helps fight a hangover. Are you ready to find out?

Nausea, dizziness, weakness, a banging headache – what sounds like a catalog of generic symptoms describes the classic symptoms of a hangover. A self-induced illness. But if we can get to bottom of why we feel these symptoms, we can figure out how to prevent or “fix” a hangover. In other words, we can figure out our own home hangover remedies for when we’ve had heavy nights of drinking.

We’re not at all advocating binge-drinking – we just want to best equip you with our hangover remedies for occasions where plenty of alcohol is involved. Whether it’s weddings, Cinco de Mayo, festivals, or birthday parties, we want to give you our tips and insights into hangover causes and how to relieve those dreaded symptoms of a hangover.

So, let’s take a look at what happens in the body when we are hungover. Embrace our science-backed tips on what helps a hangover – from preventive water drinking to consuming anti-hangover superfoods.

What Happens to Your Body When You Are Hungover?

woman holds her head while hungover

Where does the word “hangover” actually come from? “Hangover” initially was used to describe someone or something that survived, but the word later adopted the meaning of the effect felt after the overconsumption of alcohol or drugs.[15]

It is still not exactly clear how a hangover develops. In any case, symptoms of a hangover only begin when the alcohol in our blood is completely broken down. Mental and physical abilities are then limited, and our mood subsequently drops.[1] Presumably, a hangover is a combination of many after-effects of intoxication.[2]

Unlike fat, carbohydrates, or protein, our body doesn’t store alcohol, which means that when we drink alcohol, our bodies make sure it is removed. While our bodies process the alcohol that we drink, it stops other necessary bodily functions, such as digestion and absorbing vital nutrients.[16] Such nutrients include vitamin B1, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin A, calcium, and protein. If you drink alcohol regularly and excessively without replenishing your nutrient levels, this can lead to serious illnesses.[17]

What Actually Causes a Hangover?

A well-known theory behind why hangovers are unpleasant is dehydration. Alcohol deprives the body of fluids, and electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium are also lost along with these fluids. This can lead to headaches, among other things.

Although this connection sounds conclusive, researchers are not sure whether it is really responsible for symptoms of a hangover. In some studies, low electrolyte levels in the blood were not found in severely hungover people.[3, 4] So in any case, dehydration is not solely to blame for hangovers.

Does a Hangover Affect Blood Sugar?

causes of a hangover

Sugars present in alcohol can cause our bodies to produce too much insulin. So, if you drink excessive amounts of alcohol, this can cause your blood sugar levels to drop. This can lead to a pounding head, fatigue, weakness, and depressed moods. 

However, researchers have not yet found a significant correlation between blood glucose levels and the severity of hangover symptoms.[4, 5] 

Tip: For more insights into your blood glucose and long-term blood sugar value in our Health Portal.

Another theory involves the metabolic intermediate acetaldehyde. It is produced when the body breaks down alcohol (ethanol). Acetaldehyde is more toxic than alcohol; it can trigger symptoms of a hangover and releases oxygen radicals that can damage cells.[4] It is also possible that drinking alcohol can throw our immune system out of balance for a while. This can lead to inflammatory reactions and thus to nausea, fatigue, and headaches.[4, 6, 7]

Did you know that around 23 percent of people do get hangovers despite extensive alcohol consumption? Researchers are still trying to find out what prevents these people from developing hangovers. It is possible that hangover-resistant people have a particularly stubborn immune system – or that they have good genetics.[8, 9] Experts are looking into the impact our genotypes have on our susceptibility to suffer from hangovers after drinking.

Our 7 Tips: What Helps a Hangover?

You can hardly influence how quickly your liver breaks down alcohol. And you can only influence how badly you will suffer from a hangover to a certain extent. This is where it becomes tricky, as the effect of most home hangover remedies cannot be scientifically proven. However, that’s not to say that your favorite hangover remedies won’t improve your mood. Let us give you our seven classic hangover tips.

1. Drink Those Drinks 

glass of tap water to help hangover

Funnily enough (or not funnily, depending on the severity of your hungover), a night of drinking can leave you feeling pretty thirsty. This is because alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it removes fluids from the body.

Alternate between drinking alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, and drink plenty of water throughout the evening. This way, you supply your body with more fluids and counteract dehydration. This remedy works especially well with isotonic drinks, such as an apple spritzer. If you distract yourself with water, juice, or soda in between rounds of alcohol, you will drink less alcohol over the course of the evening.

When the damage is done and you’re hungover, we recommend you opt for a glass of orange juice to rehydrate yourself. Of course, water, other juices, and caffeine-free drinks will also do the trick; however, orange juice contains vitamins A, B, and C, which support your immune system. Not only this, you’ll find that with a bit of orange juice, your blood sugar levels should return to normal. If you have an upset stomach, herbal drinks will also prove great for hydration and relief.

However, researchers doubt that hydration has any effect on other symptoms of a hangover.[4]

2. Do Anything Revitalizing and Relaxing

Recovering from a hangover in the bath

Whether it’s a cup of strong coffee, a cold shower, or a long nap, such rituals wake you up and boost your well-being. But as nice as those sound, you can’t fight your hangover this way. Exercise won’t help either – you can’t sweat out the by-products of alcohol. You will have to rely on your liver to break them down. And it doesn’t work any faster just because you feel more awake or better.

Of course, relaxation is still good for you and improves your well-being. And it may help combat any low moods or feelings of guilt, which often occur after alcohol consumption and according to studies can worsen the hangover![10]

3.     Enjoy the Best Hangover Food

Many of us would agree that devouring fast food or a takeout is the most appealing thing to do when we are hungover; however, oily, fatty, heavy foods are the last thing our body needs when it’s trying to recover from a heavy night of drinking.

A popular myth that we’ve all been fed is that food soaks up the excess alcohol in our bodies. Food does, however, speed up our metabolism, so when you find yourself hungover, the best hangover food you can opt for is vitamin- or protein-rich foods like eggs, vegetable-based broth, breakfast cereal, or wholegrain toast. This is sure to also boost your blood sugars so that they reach healthy levels.

Did you know that the Romans recommended raw owls’ eggs as one of their effective hangover remedies? Eggs contain cysteine, which is an amino acid that is decreased by alcohol consumption.[17]

Although we can get back our lost electrolytes by eating salty food, it is not at all certain what role electrolytes play in hangovers.[4]

If your stomach is significantly weakened by alcohol, rich and heavy foods can lead to nausea and vomiting. Soups and apple spritzers are electrolyte-containing alternatives that are more likely to stay in your stomach.

Better yet, why focus on hangover food when you can look at which foods actually might prevent you from getting a hangover in the first place? Before you start drinking, ensure that you eat a meal rich in carbohydrates. This will slow down the process of alcohol absorption in your body.[18]

4.    Watch Out for Anti-Hangover Remedies

Some manufacturers sell anti-hangover remedies that supply the body with specific nutrients to reduce or prevent hangover symptoms. They contain, for example, yeast and superfoods such as ginkgo and acerola and are usually rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Researchers have examined a whole series of studies on such anti-hangover drugs and supplements. They concluded there is actually no proof that supplements can effectively prevent or treat a hangover. However, three supplements appeared to be somewhat promising: gamma-linolenic acid from borage oil, a hemp-based supplement, and the anti-inflammatory agent tolfenamic acid.[11] Another study observed that prickly pear extract could alleviate some hangover symptoms – presumably because it also counteracts inflammation.[12]

5.    Reach for the Painkillers – But Which One?

woman takes painkillers for hangover remedy

When your head is pounding, it’s no surprise that you want to take painkillers. But painkillers only mask the discomfort and may put further strain on the body. Only take them if you are really in pain – that is, if you have a headache or muscle cramps.

After drinking, you should avoid paracetamol, as it is broken down in the liver, just like alcohol. It is true that, according to scientists, a proper dose of paracetamol tends not to be associated with a risk of liver damage, even in alcoholics.[13] But this extra burden on the liver can slow down the process of breaking down residual alcohol from the night before. Acetylsalicylic acid – that is, aspirin, may negatively affect the already weakened stomach. This leaves ibuprofen as your best bet against a hangover headache.

6.    Does the Hair of the Dog Work?

When we are drunk, we don’t feel any hangover symptoms. So, it only makes sense that another alcoholic beverage could take away the hangover!

In fact, a scientific theory supports this thesis – besides the alcohol ethanol, many drinks contain methanol as a by-product. Methanol is converted in the liver into toxic substances that can lead to symptoms of a hangover. However, the liver first breaks down the ethanol. If your alcoholic drink the following day keeps the liver busy with new ethanol, no methanol is temporarily broken down. This is how you would delay methanol-related symptoms for a while.[4]

However, this hair-of-the-dog approach is not fool-proof: It only postpones the hangover. At some point, methanol has to be broken down – and then our body will most likely suffer even more if we have given it additional alcohol in the meantime. So maybe opt for water and/or tea instead.

Bourbon whisky causes a worse hangover than vodka – researchers found this in a study. Some alcoholic drinks get more by-products that cause problems for the body. Slightly better hangovers are caused by other light alcoholic beverages besides vodka, such as gin and white wine.[14]

what helps a hangover: more alcohol or coffee

7.    Don’t Drink So Much!

Yes, this tip is a little obvious. While we don’t want to be party poopers, drinking less is by far the most effective way to keep symptoms of a hangover at bay. In fact, it’s the only thing that has been scientifically proven to work.[11]

And to tell the truth, after a certain amount of alcohol, there comes a point when another bottle of beer no longer adds to the fun. If you are under peer pressure to drink more, just remember that those pressuring you to buy another round probably won’t remember you saying no the next day. You’ve got this!

Sources

[1]        Lantman, M. van S., Mackus, M., van de Loo, A. J. A. E., Verster, J. C. “The impact of alcohol hangover symptoms on cognitive and physical functioning, and mood,” Hum. Psychopharmacol. Clin. Exp., vol. 32(5), p. e2623, September 2017, doi: 10.1002/hup.2623.

[2]        Verster, J. C.  et al., “The Alcohol Hangover Research Group Consensus Statement on Best Practice in Alcohol Hangover Research,” Curr. Drug Abuse Rev., vol. 3(2), p. 116–126, June 2010.

[3]       “The Hangover: Pathophysiology and Treatment of an Alcohol-Induced Hangover – Clinical Correlations,” available at https://www.clinicalcorrelations.org/2011/05/27/the-hangover-pathophysiology-and-treatment-of-an-alcohol-induced-hangover/, accessed on December 11, 2018.

[4]        Penning, R., Nuland, M., Fliervoet, L. A. L., Verster, B. O. and J. C. “The Pathology of Alcohol Hangover,” Current Drug Abuse Reviews, May 31, 2010, available at http://www.eurekaselect.com/94052/article, accessed December 11, 2018.

[5]       “Physical and Psychomotor Functioning of Females the Morning After Consuming Low to Moderate Quantities of Beer: Journal of Studies on Alcohol: Vol 67, No 3“, available at https://www.jsad.com/doi/abs/10.15288/jsa.2006.67.416, accessed on December 12, 2018.

[6]        Kim, D.-J. et al. “Effects of alcohol hangover on cytokine production in healthy subjects“, Alcohol, vol. 31(3), p. 167–170, Nov. 2003, doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2003.09.003.

[7]        Kaivola, S., Parantainen, J., Österman, T., Timonen, H. “Hangover Headache and Prostaglandins: Prophylactic Treatment with Tolfenamic Acid“, Cephalalgia, vol. 3(1), p. 31–36, March 1983, doi: 10.1046/j.1468-2982.1983.0301031.x.

[8]        Howland, J., Edwards, D. J. R. and E. M. “Are Some Drinkers Resistant to Hangover? A Literature Review“, Current Drug Abuse Reviews, Dez. 31, 2007. http://www.eurekaselect.com/92361/article (zugegriffen Dez. 11, 2018).

[9]        van de Loo A. J. A. E. et al. “Susceptibility to Alcohol Hangovers: The Association with Self-Reported Immune Status“, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public. Health, vol. 15(6), June 2018, doi: 10.3390/ijerph15061286.

[10]      Harburg, E.,  Gunn, E., Gleiberman, L., DiFranceisco, W., Schork, A., “Psychosocial factors, alcohol use, and hangover signs among social drinkers: a reappraisal,“ J. Clin. Epidemiol., vol. 46(5), p. 413–422, May 1993.

[11]      Pittler, M. H., Verster, J. C., Ernst, E. “Interventions for preventing or treating alcohol hangover: systematic review of randomised controlled trials“, BMJ, vol. 331(7531), p. 1515–1518, Dec. 2005, doi: 10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1515.

[12]      Wiese, J., McPherson, S., Odden, M. C., Shlipak, M. G. “Effect of Opuntia ficus indica on symptoms of the alcohol hangover“, Arch. Intern. Med., vol. 164(12), p. 1334–1340, June 2004, doi: 10.1001/archinte.164.12.1334.

[13]      Graham, G. G., Scott, K. F., Day, R. O. “Alcohol and paracetamol“, Aust. Prescr., vol. 27(1), p. 14–5, Feb. 2004, doi: 10.18773/austprescr.2004.009.

[14]      Rohsenow D. J. “Intoxication With Bourbon Versus Vodka: Effects on Hangover, Sleep, and Next-Day Neurocognitive Performance in Young Adults“, Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res., vol. 34(3), p. 509–518, March 2010, doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2009.01116.x.

[15]     “Hangover,” Merriam-Webster, available at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hangover, accessed on April 29, 2021.

[16]     “Alcohol units,” National Health Service, available at https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/alcohol/Pages/alcohol-units.aspx, accessed on April 29, 2021.

[17]      Cox, D. “Everything you ever wanted to know about hangovers (but were too queasy to ask),” available at https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/dec/12/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-hangovers, accessed on April 29, 2021.

[18]     “Hangover Cures,” National Health Service, available at https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/hangover-cures/, accessed on April 29, 2021.

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