What exactly is a hangover, anyway?

    According to Wikipedia, a hangover is “a 2009 American comedy film” – oh wait, wrong page. Sorry, one sec. A hangover is the “experience of various unpleasant physiological and psychological effects following the consumption of alcohol.” If you have had the good fortune to never experience a hangover, typical symptoms include headache, dizziness, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, nausea, irritability and dry mouth.

But you may ask, how is it that the vodka-cran Blackflies I crushed last night are making my head hurt like this? To you I say, the answer is multifaceted; factors including acetaldehyde accumulation, dehydration, metabolic acidosis and changes in the immune system and glucose metabolism all play a role in the Sunday scaries.

As much as my biochemistry-minded brain would love to take a deep dive into all these complicated underlying metabolic and chemical processes, I will not subject you to my incessant nerd-talk. However, I thought it might be fun to investigate some so-called “hangover cures” in a Mythbusters-esque manner.

Although popular, drinking more alcohol the morning after, known as “hair of the dog,” is an ineffective hangover cure. It may make you feel better temporarily simply because alcohol dulls your senses. However, in the long run, you’re just prolonging your agony as now your body has to process not only the toxins you consumed last night but the new ones you’ve added on top.

Another popular “cure” for hangovers is to drink juice or coffee. The thought here is that drinking these beverages will speed up your metabolism so you can process the alcohol remaining in your system. Although juice is a sugary drink, it does not contain enough sugar to kick-start your metabolism, and some studies even show that drinking juice slows down the breakdown of alcohol. Similarly, drinking coffee will only cause you to suffer from both your hangover and a caffeine overload. It’s better just to stay clear altogether.

Taking painkillers is also not the best idea. Drugs such as aspirin and acetaminophen, like any other chemical compound entering your body, rely on your liver to metabolize them. But, your liver is already overloaded trying to break down the alcohol in your system, so taking painkillers while hungover is especially hard on your body and not the smartest.

So what does work? The only legitimate way to reduce your hangover symptoms is to drink water. Yes, really. A good rule of thumb is, after one alcoholic drink, have a glass of water, then go back to alcohol if you’re choosing to consume. This way, you’re moderating your alcohol intake and also keeping yourself hydrated. Another good tip is to make sure that you’re eating if you’re drinking, so that your body starts the digestion and metabolism processes which will help clear the alcohol out of your system.

If you want to learn more about harm reduction strategies for consuming alcohol, feel free to email me at healthintern@mta.ca. Also, make sure to follow @mtahealthintern on Instagram for updates on Wellness Centre services and events as well as some daily positive vibes! Have a happy and healthy week!

Rachel McDougall
Rachel McDougall is a contributor to the Argosy.