Hangovers: how to prevent them and how to get rid of them

The best way to avoid a hangover is not to drink, but if you are reading this, it's probably too late for that. No judgments, we've all been there: the churning stomach, the pounding headache, the woeful feeling of regret salted with a dash of self-loathing. Basically, what the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism describes as a state of "general misery". Here's what you need to know about getting over that hangover and preventing one in the first place.

Why do we get hangovers?

There is some scientific debate about the exact reason we get hangovers, which is surprising given that the phenomenon is so widespread and frequent. Excessive drinking costs the United States alone over $224 billion a year in lost workplace productivity according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Some specialists believe a hangover is mild case of alcohol withdrawal, others attribute it to dehydration, gastric irritation, loss of electrolytes, and the dilation of blood vessels (which, along with dehydration, is the cause of the elfin carpenter pounding little nails into your forehead). Recent studies suggest the culprit is related to inflammation and immune response.

On a practical level, hangovers are more common when you drink on an empty stomach, combine alcohol with other drugs including nicotine, and drink faster than your liver can metabolize the alcohol. All of these reasons provide clues to how to avoid feeling like garbage after a night of partying:

  • Make sure to eat before you drink, alcohol is absorbed more quickly on an empty stomach.
  • Fatty foods or dairy products such as a glass of milk are a good choice to include with a pre-game meal because they coat the inside of your stomach and protect the lining from irritation.
  • Be aware of alcohol content. Sugar masks the flavor of alcohol so go easy on boozy but quaffable cocktails such as a margarita or cosmopolitan. Please don't ask me tell you the story of the night my boyfriend and I went to a bar serving 2-for-1 delicious cosmos. (Note that the percentage of alcohol in beer, especially craft beers, and wine can vary widely. Scrutinize your labels. At 14 percent, a big, juicy, purple California Cabernet might be double the alcohol content of some light, fresh German Rieslings. )
  • Hydrate. The rule of thumb is to drink a glass of water for for every "unit" of booze you consume — one glass of wine, one beer, one ounce of hard liquor, generally speaking. Not only will this keep you from starving your cells of H2O, it will slow down your rate of consumption and give your liver a chance to process the alcohol.
  • Choose your booze wisely
  • Chemicals called conegers in dark colored liquors, such as bourbon and brandy, have been shown to trigger more severe hangovers than clear gin or vodka. Red wine also has more conegers than white.

Speaking of wine, sulfites, tannins and histamines are all naturally occuring substances in wine that can cause headaches and congestion if you are sensitive to them. Much fuss is made about sulfites, chemicals that occur during the fermentation process and are also added to If you think you might be sulfite-sensitive, choose an organic wine which, by label, can have no added chemicals. Also, sweet wine contains about double the sulfites of red and white wine.

  • Top shelf liquor really is best. Higher quality distilling practices filter out impurities in spirits that contribute to the painful aftermath of a serious night out.
  • Take a dose of NSAIDs at bedtime with that big glass of water you know you need even though you don't feel like drinking it and will have to get up to pee during the night. Anti-inflammatories such as Ibuprofen or Naproxen can help reduce symptoms the next day. Skip the Tylenol (acetaminophen won't fight the inflammation effectively and it's very hard on your already stressed out liver).
  • Sleep. According to the Mayo Clinic, some experts attribute hangovers to the poor quality or short night of sleep. (That, and drinking too much.)

Getting over a hangover faster

As with the common cold, there's no perfect cure for this pervasive malady. Here are some things to minimize the symptoms:

  • To ease a headache take more NSAIDs (but don't exceed the recommended 24-hour dosage).
  • Soothe your sour stomach. Alka-seltzer, Tums, or Pepto-Bismol can help neutralize an acidified tummy. Ginger tea also quells nausea.
  • Replace those electrolytes. Coconut water is a no-added-sugar alternative to sports drinks such as Gatorade.
  • Eat your vitamins. If you can stomach it, sip a fruit (including a potassium-rich banana) smoothie to provide the Vitamin C, B-vitamins, and other minerals and antioxidants that help rebalance your system.
  • Get up and exercise. Dragging yourself out of bed might seem like torture, but endorphins are the body's own painkillers and light exercise helps flush out toxins.
  • Finally, rather than beat yourself up, try to learn from the experience—even be thankful for the information. It's your body's way of warning you that it can't process either the amount or the type of alcohol you imbibed.
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