I’m never drinking again: The science behind hangovers

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Forewarned is …probably still hungover

Planning to take a “night before” over-the-counter medication before hitting the town? These substances are marketed with the claim that if you take them at the start of drinking, you won’t get a hangover. From what the experts tell us, you might as well put that package of PartySmart back on the shelf. “As far as I know, none of these formulations has been subjected to rigorous randomized trials,” Howland says. Even if a miracle prevention aid isn’t out there—yet—there are some common-sense practices that might head off the worst of it.

The most foolproof way is not to drink at all. (We know, but we had to say it.)

If you do plan to drink, prepare yourself by eating something before, during, and after drinking. Having food in your system could help absorb the booze and delay its effect, but by how much you can’t be sure. Since dehydration is one of the major symptoms of a hangover, you can fend it off by drinking water along with booze as the night progresses (some folks swear by going drink for drink with water and hard stuff). And if you remember to think of it, take an aspirin or ibuprofen (like Advil), along with more water, before you plunk, fully-clothed, on top of your bed to sleep it off. Whatever you do, don’t take any form of acetaminophen, like Tylenol, because of its potential toxic effects on your already stressed-out liver.

Morning after

While humorist Robert Benchley famously said that “the only cure for a hangover is death,” you can at least begin to treat your symptoms in the gruesomely bright and overly loud morning after. Howland suggests caffeine and aspirin, taken separately or together (often packaged in hangover relief OTC meds like Blowfish, but a lot cheaper with a bottle of generic aspirin and a warm Coke.)

“Caffeine addresses the fatigue, and aspirin addresses the headache,” Howland says. If you’re feeling nauseated on top of everything else, he suggests Pepto-Bismol. When asked about “miracle cures” like oxygen bars or IV treatments, Howland is firm: “If they haven’t been subjected to randomized trails, they can’t be determined to be an effective medical intervention.”

Wow, you’re actually feeling hungry? While many people swear by a greasy breakfast, preferably in a diner with a poor health department record, you might want to start slowly. Load up on potassium by eating a banana. It’s rich in electrolytes that could give you a boost. Still doing okay? Try a saltine or two—in your dehydrated state, a bit of fluid retention might be a good thing. Have to be somewhere? Currently unable to move? It might be time to power down more caffeine in whatever form you can handle it. And if you didn’t leave them at the bar last night, pop on a pair of shades (after you drop in some Visine) to protect your sensitive peepers.

Tunnel, light at the end of?

In a world with so many serious diseases running rampant, it may seem trivial to go questing after a cure for hangovers. But pain is pain, so scientists search on—from Australia, to the Netherlands, to Boston, to Los Angeles. And they may have found a ray of hope (but not a blazingly bright one, because our eyes still hurt a little).

Liang’s team at USC/UCLA has been testing herbs from her native China, and they’re especially interested in dihydromyricetin (DHM), extracted from the herb Hovenia and Rattan tea. “We are the first group to systematically study the underlying mechanisms of DHM effects on alcohol use disorder. We’ve demonstrated that DHM prevents anxiety either before, during, or after a session of alcoholic consumption in animals,” she says.

Good news, right? Not so fast, says Liang. Since her research on DHM went public around five years ago, more than 40 companies have started selling it as a dietary supplement. You might have seen it being sold as BluCetin, Drinkwel, Rally Capsules, or AfterPartyPal. Liang urges caution, noting that the sellers lack regulation and quality control.

Her team is working with Master Herbs, Inc. to create a product, NoADIC, that will extract the herb sources in a standardized manner. Tests are underway, and Liang expects marketing to begin soon, but does not have an exact date for sale as yet.

In the meantime, be careful out there, and don’t forget the Pepto-Bismol.

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