Why hangover cures work

As the new academic year starts and all you freshers are starting a life of partying and trying to get up for lectures, I thought it would be a good idea to explore the science behind some good old hangover cures and discover which ones work and which ones actually just make you feel worse!

Let’s start with how alcohol is digested in the body. Once ingested, alcohol does not require any time to be digested. It is absorbed directly by the wall of an empty stomach and reaches the brain within a minute. An enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase was discovered in the mid-1960s, which degrades alcohol in the stomach lessening the amount of alcohol in the stomach by 20%. This enzyme is found in a lesser quantity in women then in men possibly explaining the smaller resistance to alcoholic drinks. It is responsible for degrading the ethanol in alcoholic drinks into acetaldehyde, which is further converted into harmless compounds acetic acid and acetaldehyde dehydrogenase. It also converts the methanol in alcohol into formaldehyde and ethylene glycol to yield glycolic and oxalic acids. There is thus a double stage of digestion.

It is mainly on this process that the most well-known hangover cure “the hair of the dog that bit you” works. The expression was first pioneered in the mid-19th century in Scotland. It obviously implies drinking a bit the morning after a heavy night can prevent a hangover. Is there any scientific basis to this phrase? An obvious explanation is that when alcohol is ingested it creates a sense of light-headedness and slight numbness, which would veil the hangover symptoms and give the impression of curing it. Scientifically, the fact that alcohol is digested in two phases means that when alcohol is consumed the morning after a heavy night, it starts the degradation process of the ethanol and methanol from scratch.  Thus the compounds, which create the hangover symptoms, are kept at bay. Although when this next bought of alcohol is finally ingested the same hangover symptoms will occur, so you are ultimately only delaying the pain.

What are the main hangover symptoms and why do they occur. The most common include headaches, dry mouth/thirst, vomiting/nausea, tiredness and sensitivity to light. One of the main causes of these symptoms is dehydration; the ethanol in alcohol has a highly dehydrating effect causing thirst, headaches and lethargy. The acetaldehyde, which is degraded from ethanol, is actually 10-30 times more toxic in the body than alcohol, and can also be a carcinogenic and mutagenic. The breakdown of alcohol in the stomach uses compounds that are also used in the synthesis of glucose. Thus the body lacks in glucose when ingesting alcohol and this can lead to fatigue and decreased concentration. The effects of alcohol on the nervous system can account for the sensitivity to light and noise. Many of these symptoms can be made worse by compounds found in other alcohols called congeners. Distilled alcohols, like vodka, have less of these compounds and thus are less likely to create a hangover. Red wine has more congeners than white wine, accounting for the red wine headache.

So what other cures are there for hangover? Evidently, the consumption of water and highly dehydrating drinks is very good for the system as it is dehydrated. Certain foods are also good hangover cures. The premise of a good old English breakfast is actually a sound one. Eggs contain the amino acid cysteine, which can also help rehydrate the body. Slightly burned toast is also good – the carbon on the toast filters the impurities in the stomach. A more aggressive method version of this is that patients admitted to hospital with alcohol poisoning are given large quantities of carbon. Fatty foods, although more of a preventative method than a cure, line the stomach making alcohol more difficult to ingest. Thus as a preventative measure, it stops alcohol being so quickly ingested and as a cure helps to mask it. An obvious cure to headaches, apart from the water, is a good dose of aspirin or ibuprofen.

A few other interesting facts about hangovers. Some scientists are researching whether some different genes encoding for alcohol dehydrogenase could be responsible for alcoholism. There is also some research into whether a portion of the population has a certain immunity to hangovers.


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About me

Natacha is a research scientist and a lover of all things science! She love finding out interesting facts about all aspects of life, whether it’s how genetic engineering works or what the difference between crimped and straight hair is. There’s a bit of science behind every mystery and the Science Informant will help find the clues for everyone to enjoy and understand the amazing world of science!

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