How to Avoid a Hangover? Don’t Drink Too Much
Neither will more alcohol — a.k.a. the “hair of the dog” remedy, which only numbs you all over again. Nor will hangover pills, expensive juice cleanses or bathing your armpits in lemon juice (the idea being that your pores will soak up and retain the hydration).
If only. After all, hangovers cost the U.S. economy $223.5 billion in workplace productivity declines, healthcare expenses, and law enforcement and motor vehicle crash costs in 2006, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It turns out there isn’t anything that can ease a hangover before it occurs. The way to prevent one? Drink less alcohol, researchers say.
Is Anyone Immune to Hangovers?
To test the claims of 25% to 30% of drinkers who maintained that they don’t get hangovers and that drinking water and eating certain foods can prevent them, ECNP researchers surveyed more than 1,500 university students in Canada and the Netherlands for the study. They asked the 789 Canadian students about their most recent heavy drinking episode, including how many drinks they’d had, the timeframe of consumption and the severity of their hangover the next morning.
Researchers then calculated the blood-alcohol concentrations of those who’d experienced a hangover and others who hadn’t. The results showed that the students who avoided hangovers weren't drinking enough to get them in the first place.
“In general, we found a pretty straight relationship; the more you drink, the more likely you are to get a hangover,” lead author Dr. Joris Verster from Utrecht University said in a news release. “The majority of those who in fact reported never having a hangover tended to drink less, perhaps less than they themselves thought would lead to a hangover.”
Testing the “Cures”
Separate research involving 826 students in the Netherlands sought to determine the effect of drinking and eating on the severity of a hangover. These students were asked about their most recent heavy drinking experience that resulted in a hangover. They reported how much they drank and whether they consumed any water or food before sleeping or while hungover.
“Those who took food or water showed a slight statistical improvement in how they felt over those who didn't, but this didn't really translate into a meaningful difference,” Dr. Verster said. “From what we know from the surveys so far, the only practical way to avoid a hangover is to drink less alcohol.”
Scientists say there’s no way to prevent that head-pounding, body-aching, all-out icky hungover feeling because they don’t fully understand what causes it. Dehydration is only part of it, Dr. Verster said. "Research has concluded that it's not simply dehydration — we know the immune system is involved, but before we know what causes it, it's very unlikely we'll find an effective cure."
How Alcohol Affects the Body
What we do know is that drinking too much — once or over the long term — can take a far more serious toll on your body than a hangover. Heavy drinking can cause severe damage to almost all of the body’s organs. Here’s how alcohol affects you physically over time:
- Brain: Alcohol changes the communication pathways responsible for transmitting signals in the brain, especially the pathway that releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, known as the “feel-good” chemical. People keep drinking to get more dopamine, but regular drinking also lowers the brain’s levels of serotonin, a chemical that helps regulate emotions. Thus, a vicious cycle of up-and-down moods is set into motion. Long-term drinking also shrinks the brain.
- Liver: Alcohol abuse can cause three types of liver damage, beginning with the accumulation of fat, also called fatty liver. This condition occurs in more than 90% of people who drink too much alcohol. From there, inflammation, or alcoholic hepatitis, can develop. Finally, cirrhosis, in which large portions of normal liver tissue are permanently replaced with scar tissue, takes place. A liver transplant is the only “cure” for cirrhosis. Women are more prone to alcoholic liver disease than men.
- Heart: Long-term drinking or drinking too much on a single occasion can lead to heart disease. Excessive drinking weakens the heart muscle, causing it to droop and stretch, a condition called cardiomyopathy. This affects the heart’s ability to pump enough blood to nourish organs and tissues, and it can cause premature death, typically through heart failure. Alcohol abuse can also cause high blood pressure, trigger arrhythmias and raise the levels of some fats in the blood (triglycerides).
- Pancreas: A healthy pancreas sends out enzymes to the small intestine to process food. Alcohol confuses this process, causing the pancreas to secrete its digestive juices internally, resulting in dangerous inflammation known as pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis can slowly destroy the pancreas, leading to diabetes and even death.
- Immune system: Too much alcohol can weaken your immune system, making you much more likely to contract such diseases as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Drinking heavily on just one occasion slows the body’s ability to ward off infections — even up to 24 hours after getting drunk. In addition, changes in liver function due to heavy drinking can make the immune system turn against the body’s own tissues.
On top of all that, alcohol is a known cause of cancers of the colon, breast, liver, mouth, throat, voice box and esophagus. How the damage occurs is still somewhat of a mystery, but alcohol has been shown to irritate body tissues. As those cells try to repair themselves, changes in DNA may occur that lead to cancer.
Alcohol can also act as a solvent, allowing other harmful chemicals, such as those found in tobacco smoke, to enter the lining of the digestive tract more easily. In women, alcohol is thought to increase estrogen levels, leading to an elevated risk of breast cancer. In fact, a study published in August 2015 in the British Medical Journal finds that just one drink a day can increase the risk of breast cancer in women.
A hangover is only a short-term consequence of heavy drinking. However, too much alcohol may indicate a drinking problem that could prove deadly. Consult your doctor if you feel you or someone you love may have a drinking problem. Other resources include the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service available at 1-800-662-HELP.
By Laura Nott
Follow Laura on Twitter at @LauraSueNott