You wake up after a night out and realize that last night’s happy hour has you feeling not so happy this morning. Your head feels like it’s in a vise, your stomach is in knots, and the inside of your mouth is as dry as the Sahara. You’re officially sick with the brown bottle flu and wondering how to cure a hangover.
Well, hold on to that pounding head and read on because we're here to tell you not only what's actually caused that hangover but also what may just be the hangover remedy you’ve been searching for.
What Causes a Hangover?
Hangovers affect nearly every organ system in your body, from your brain to your heart to your digestive system.
When you consume alcohol, approximately 80% of it is processed by your liver. The rest is handled by your stomach or comes out in your saliva, feces, urine, sweat, and breast milk—that is, if you’re nursing.
You know you have a hangover when you feel dizzy and nauseous, have a pounding headache, and are tired, sweaty, and anxious. You may also have an extremely dry mouth and eyes and have trouble thinking, talking, or dealing with light.
Symptoms of a hangover can last a full day after drinking alcohol, and it may take you even longer than that to feel like you’re back to your old self again.
The biggest culprit for your hangover is dehydration, as alcohol quickly depletes you of fluids through a combination of its diuretic effect and suppression of vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone. That’s twice the dehydration for the price of one and results in frequent trips to the bathroom.
On top of draining you of fluids, alcohol upsets your digestive system and causes your stomach lining to become irritated and inflamed. In addition, stomach acid production increases and digestion, pancreatic secretions, and nutrient absorption slow.
This reaction of the body to the effects of alcohol can lead to that delightful nausea—and, yes, vomiting—we often experience after a night of excessive drinking.
Another thing to blame for your hangover is acetaldehyde, a toxic compound (and known carcinogen) created in your liver from the interaction of alcohol and an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase.
When your liver works efficiently and you avoid binge drinking, acetaldehyde is easily converted to acetate—a harmless substance that's passed out of the body as water and carbon dioxide.
However, when you drink heavily, your liver eventually becomes overwhelmed, and acetaldehyde can reach excessive levels. It’s this buildup that’s believed to lead to hangover symptoms like nausea and headache.
Believe it or not, different types of alcohol cause different types of hangovers. The reason for this is that, along with ethanol, some of your favorite alcoholic drinks also contain high levels of compounds called congeners. These byproducts of alcohol fermentation are found in their highest amounts in red wine and dark liquors.
Anyone who’s ever mixed wine and beer at the same sitting has probably noticed the deadly combination that can be. That's because different types of alcohol have different congeners, and when you mix them together, a hangover can become exponentially worse.
Interestingly, the carbonation in beer also speeds up the absorption of alcohol, so mixing beer with any other type of alcohol gives your liver even less time to process the toxins.
One of the congeners found in alcohol is methanol (methyl alcohol). Methanol breaks down into formic acid and formaldehyde—two highly toxic substances that not only worsen a hangover but can also extend the duration of symptoms.
Immune System Changes
Throwing back drinks also causes changes in the concentration of your body’s cytokine levels. Secreted by immune cells, cytokines mediate cellular processes and regulate inflammatory responses.
A study in the journal Alcohol found that people in the throes of a hangover have elevated levels of cytokines. Normally, cytokines help us fight off infections, but in high doses, they can lead to hangover symptoms like nausea, headache, and fatigue.
So now that you know what’s happening inside your body to make you feel like dirt, here are several tips you can try to speed up your hangover recovery.
How to Cure a Hangover
You may have heard of all sorts of concoctions your friends insist will stop a hangover in its tracks. Probably one of the oldest is hair of the dog that bit you, or its more recognizable shortened version hair of the dog. The phrase actually comes from an old belief that a person could be cured of rabies if they drank a potion containing the rabid dog’s hair.
Some people think that drinking alcohol during a hangover is the best way to cure it. This is based on the belief that a hangover is a form of alcohol withdrawal and a little more alcohol—the dog’s hair—is a way of getting a fix. But is this just folklore?
Surprisingly, there may actually be something to this old wives’ tale. Like sedatives such as benzodiazepines, alcohol binds to GABA receptors in the brain, inhibits glutamate, and increases the amount of both dopamine and serotonin. So, in effect, alcohol activates the brain’s reward system, and when you take it away, your brain wants more.
However, we’re certainly not recommending you hit the liquor cabinet when you have a hangover because more alcohol just creates a vicious cycle—and contributes to even more dehydration.
Yet there are several remedies that can help ease symptoms in a more healthy way and get you back to feeling like a normal human being again.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do for a hangover is to rehydrate. While dehydration is not the only cause of your hangover, it does contribute to the fatigue, dizziness, and pounding head that sometimes follow a bout of drinking.
In fact, drinking plenty of water between alcoholic drinks may even help prevent a hangover. Likewise, having several glasses of water the last thing before you fall into bed may also help prevent dehydration the next day.
But if it’s already the next morning and the thought of a large glass of water makes you nauseous, at least try frequent small sips. Any water you can get back into your system will help speed your recovery.
Even after you’ve given your hangover the boot, be sure to continue to drink water and stay hydrated because it will take a while for your body to fully bounce back.
While you may be familiar with Pedialyte as a beverage designed to help prevent dehydration in kids with the stomach flu, because it helps replenish electrolytes, it can also be useful for treating dehydration caused by overdrinking.
Like Pedialyte, sports drinks such as Gatorade can also help replenish the electrolytes lost from the night before. But sports drinks also tend to have more sugar, so be sure to keep that in mind when deciding which electrolyte replacement is best for you.
Coconut water is another liquid that can aid in rehydration after too much alcohol consumption. Owing to its key electrolytes sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, coconut water can also help put back what alcohol has taken away.
Take Prickly Pear Extract
A study conducted by researchers from Tulane University found that people given prickly pear extract 5 hours before consuming alcohol were less likely to have a severe hangover the next day. In particular, symptoms of nausea, dry mouth, and appetite loss were significantly reduced.
What’s more, they also found that the extract lowered the levels of C-reactive protein—an inflammatory marker—in the liver, leading researchers to conclude that the benefits of prickly pear extract in reducing hangover symptoms may be due to its ability to decrease the body’s inflammatory response to alcohol.
Shoot Pickle Juice
Pickle juice has a bit of a reputation among both athletes and alcohol lovers alike. But can it really help a hangover? Yes, it can. The vinegar and salt that make up the pickle brine aid in replenishing electrolyte levels and restoring water balance. And if the thought of chugging pickle juice does nothing for you, don’t think you have to go crazy with it either. Just a quarter of a cup can do the trick.
While you may crave a hamburger and fries the morning after a heavy night of drinking, it’s probably wise to avoid anything too heavy or greasy. Instead, be kind to your sensitive stomach and eat some oatmeal, eggs, peanut butter on toast, or a banana. Large amounts of alcohol can actually cause your blood sugar levels to drop, so these foods can help nudge your levels back to normal.
The complex carbohydrates of oatmeal are slowly digested and provide a steady release of blood sugar. Eggs are rich in the amino acid cysteine, the precursor to the antioxidant glutathione, which the liver needs to break down toxic acetaldehyde. Peanut butter provides a rich protein source. And bananas help replenish potassium levels.
Heavy drinking can throw off the balance of your gut’s harmful and beneficial bacteria, and it’s important to restore that ratio to a proper state. Kombucha, a fermented tea, contains live cultures and B vitamins that can combat an inflamed gut, calm an upset stomach, and keep nausea away. Kombucha is also rich in antioxidants and has been shown to reduce toxins in the liver.
Take Red Ginseng
Used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and touted for a range of health benefits, red ginseng has also been shown to lessen hangover severity and lower blood alcohol levels.
Preventing a Hangover
We’ve shown that there are ways to help improve the symptoms of a hangover, but the only way to truly prevent a hangover is to avoid one in the first place. However, if you just can’t resist the siren’s call, remember the following tips.
- Watch out for congeners. Dark alcohols, including red wine, tequila, and whiskey, are high in congeners and are associated with more severe hangover symptoms. Light alcohols, such as gin and vodka, have lower levels.
- Eat a healthy meal before heading out the door. A meal containing plenty of good fats, proteins, and carbohydrates can help slow down the absorption of alcohol. Drinking on an empty stomach also leads to quicker intoxication, increasing your chances of having a severe hangover the next day.
- Take an amino acid supplement or consume foods rich in antioxidants and amino acids. Antioxidants can help tone down the inflammatory effects of alcohol, and essential amino acids (EAAs) can help rebalance brain chemicals. EAAs can also give your liver an extra boost by helping it break down the toxic byproducts of alcohol. In particular, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), a derivative of the amino acid cysteine, can support liver function by helping increase glutathione production.
And if you do end up having a few too many, be kind to your body. In the end, the only real cure for a hangover is time.