A pounding headache, a racing heartbeat, uncontrollable sweats, body aches and vomiting are some of the common symptoms people endure after a long night of drinking. Hangovers are the worst. They’re a painful sign that a person consumed more alcohol than his or her body could handle and, as a result, the next half day is spent on the couch with Pedialyte and fried food, trying to fix the hangover fast. People seem to have their own hangover remedies, but there are no existing evidence-based studies that prove one hangover cure is better than the rest. The biochemistry of alcohol and how it is metabolized in the body may shed light on how to prevent a nasty hangover.
What causes hangover symptoms?
The simplest breakdown of alcohol is as follows: Ethanol breaks down into acetaldehyde which further breaks down into acetate, more commonly known as vinegar. This process, of course, is much more complicated and produces many byproducts. Alcohol metabolism primarily occurs in the liver which is the body’s detoxification center. Acetaldehyde may trigger sweating, flushing, a rapid pulse, nausea and vomiting. In most people, acetaldehyde turns into vinegar pretty quickly, but it can hang around long enough to produce those nasty hangover effects.
Acetaldehyde is actually metabolized differently in people of Asian origin and, therefore, this byproduct is greatly elevated in this population, creating even more of those nasty side effects. The popular drug disulfiram (Antabuse), which is commonly prescribed to help people in recovery abstain from alcohol, inhibits the breakdown of acetaldehyde and, thus, increases its level, creating these hangover effects. For every ounce of ethanol that is broken down in the liver, a small fraction of methanol is created, which is very toxic to the body, causing additional hangover symptoms.
Are there proven cures for hangovers?
So can a hangover be cured? From lemon juice, coconut water, prickly pear cactus, ibuprofen, a shot of whiskey in the morning, water and electrolytes, to greasy fried food, people seem to have their own cure to kick their hangover the next morning. Although there is not enough research and evidence behind these remedies, there is some science behind restoring the body’s balance after a heavy night of drinking.
“Like research into the pathologic mechanisms of hangover, research on treatment and prevention of hangover is extremely limited. A systematic review of hangover treatments identified only 15 publications, and only one half of these met standards for obtaining credible results. No drug is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of hangover,” wrote Medscape author Gayle Nicholas Scott, doctor of pharmacy.
What helps ease hangover symptoms?
The best cure for a hangover is to decrease alcohol consumption. Cutting back while remaining cognizant of the harmful effects alcohol can have on the body and mind is the best remedy for a hangover. That said, if you or someone you know is feeling the effects of drinking too much the night before, here are some ways to ease hangover symptoms.
Alcohol is a diuretic and, as such, causes dehydration. In addition, vomiting and diarrhea from the gastrointestinal effects of alcohol will cause additional dehydration. So water is essential before, during and after drinking, and the morning after.
After a long night of hitting the bottle, the body’s electrolytes are unbalanced, and vomiting and sweating only worsen this. This why juices that contain electrolytes — sodium, magnesium, potassium and phosphate — are important. Pedialyte is a great electrolyte source, so are electrolyte packets found at sporting goods stores.
For headaches and body aches, people often take ibuprofen. While ibuprofen may help the headache, it can also cause additional irritation to the stomach lining, which is already damaged after a long night of drinking. To prevent stomach lining irritation, try ibuprofen with a proton pump inhibitor such as omeprazole (Prilosec). Avoid acetaminophen as a hangover fix, because this drug combined with even light-to-moderate drinking can cause liver and kidney damage.
Since alcohol deprives the body of sugar, some have attempted to increase sugar intake to prevent hangovers. In fact, some London pubs at one time sold fructose pills with their pints of beer. This has proven ineffective, because the level of fructose required to balance blood sugar is too great. For diabetics this blood sugar balance is especially complicated.
For severe hangover symptoms, seek medical attention.
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About the author
Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at the Sovereign Health Group and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author email@example.com.
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