It's Saturday morning. You wake up to a world that seems far too bright for your eyes, and a skull that seems far too small for your pounding brain. Your desire to go back to sleep is only matched by your desire to run to the bathroom and vomit.
You quickly realize you're hungover, and it's no mystery why: You overdid it last night. But what can you do? A hangover is a necessary evil after heavy (or sometimes moderate) drinking. And there's no cure for it, right?
Well, no. There isn't. But there are some ways to ease the effects. Or, with some preemptive planning and a basic knowledge of what causes the next-day nightmare, you can learn to avoid the hangover altogether.
"When you drink, you’re poisoning your body," explains Dr. Robert Lahita, who works with the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. "Depending on the nature of the booze, if you drink responsibly but get buzzed, you can have a hangover from the alcohol passing through your liver," he says. "Congeners in the alcohol can make you sick."
Congeners, as described by Wines & Vines magazine, are a byproduct of the fermentation process. They add specific flavors and complexities to your alcoholic beverages, but certain types of these congeners are also believed to be responsible for causing, or worsening, a hangover.
"Not only that, but if you drink a lot, you'll be dehydrated," Lahita adds.
Dr. Marc K. Siegel of the New York University School of Medicine also feels strongly on this point. "Hangovers are cause by many things, including toxins from alcohol, but the main cause is dehydration," he warns.
So if congeners and dehydration are to blame for your hangover, abstaining from alcohol altogether seems to be the only way to prevent a hangover, right?
Well, no. It's not. Choosing your booze wisely can help you steer clear of a hangover. In fact, a study from Brown University found that bourbon contained 37 times as many congeners as vodka, and study participants who were instructed to drink the darker liquors reported worse hangovers than those who chose vodka.
Lahita also offers additional advice. As he says, "The cheaper the booze, the worse the hangover," due to the lower-end liquors generally containing more impurities than their top-shelf counterparts. "And the more sugar involved, the worse the hangover," he adds, calling out mixed drinks in particular. According to the expert, this is because of the glucose, or simple sugars found in fruits and grains, can "facilitate the absorption" of alcohol.
And for warding off dehydration, which was long thought to be a main culprit of the hangover, you're going to need some more foresight. "The most common thing to do is drink 8 ounces of water between each beverage," Lahita suggests. "If you drink three gin martinis, drink three glasses of water."
"Water, water, water," Siegel echoes, claiming that staying hydrated is key to processing the poisons in the alcohol.
That's not to say you should underestimate the power of food too, because there's much truth to the old adage that insists you never drink on an empty stomach. "Most people think it's because [food] soaks up the alcohol," explains Lahita, "but it really just closes off the pylorus," or the passage that connects the stomach to the small bowel. When it closes in order to digest food in the stomach, it's also trapping the processing some of the alcohol before it's absorbed into the bloodstream.
The previous proactive measures, although helpful, aren't a completely fail-proof method for avoiding a hangover. If you ingest alcohol, your body has to deal with it in some way or another. And if your body responds with headaches and nausea, then you'll just have to suffer through it, right?
Well, kind of. But not necessarily. There's really no quick way to get back to your sober self during a hangover, but there are ways to make it more manageable.
Siegel says that drinking more water and eating something, if you can stomach it, will help out. And by no means does he ever recommend physical activity. "Don't try to exercise your way through it," he says (as if that's what you were planning on doing).
Drinking coffee or another alcoholic beverage might make you feel better temporarily, Siegel adds, but neither is the best idea. Coffee can contribute to further dehydration, and more liquor "will only delay your symptoms," he says.
Instead, Lahita recommends a few natural remedies he's aware of, including chewing on a piece of ginger (to settle the stomach) or placing a drop of peppermint oil under the nose (to fend off nausea). "Some suggest aspirin," he continues, "but the aspirin can increase blood-alcohol concentrations because it competes with the enzymes in the liver, as does ibuprofen, and especially Tylenol."
Siegel, on the other hand, disagrees somewhat with the last bit of advice. "One or two Tylenol isn’t going to hurt anybody, but it’s no a real treatment," he believes.
So, no, if you're looking for a miracle cure for your churning stomach or your pounding head, you're probably much too late. A great hangover remedy starts well before you finish drinking, so here's hoping you have the foresight and fortitude to remember that the next time you reach for your rocks glass.