Hangover headaches are the most common form of headaches. A Danish study in the 1990s revealed that 72% of people aged 25-64 suffered from it at least once in their life. According to a British Medical Journal report, alcohol hangover-related problems could account for £2 billion (almost Rs7.8 trillion) in lost wages every year in Britain, mostly because of sick leave.
Calling in sick is a wise decision, though, as research has shown, even after blood alcohol levels have come down to zero, people can suffer temporary memory lapses, and their visual-spatial skills (those required when driving, flying a plane or operating a machine) are affected.
Another report in the journal Hypertension implies that hangovers could increase the risk of strokes in young adults, especially when they have had more than three drinks.
While the ultimate, scientifically-proven hangover cure remains elusive, we do have an expanding body of knowledge on what causes the symptoms of hangovers and a little bit on what could help ease those.
Hangovers, it seems, are as individual as the people they torment. Some hold their drinks well, others suffer terribly even after a single peg. Scientists have now discovered a “hangover gene” in fruit flies, with a counterpart likely to exist in human beings. In general, women and smaller-built people and some ethnic groups such as the Japanese are more likely to get hangovers.
Surprisingly, both teetotallers taking their first drink as well as heavy regular drinkers are prone to hangovers. Regular light drinkers could escape it. The severity of the hangover may also depend on the frame of your mind, according to one study. Being depressed or angry while drinking could make you feel worse the next day.
Science of hangovers
Dizzy the next day? Dehydration is the most likely culprit, strange as it may sound considering one has been taking in fluids. That’s because ethanol, the main ingredient of alcohol, has reached your brain, started turning into a potent form called aldehyde and seeped into your nerve cells, starting to cause utter confusion. They act much like rogue traffic wardens who mix up the signals and cause chaos. For example, ethanol stops the release of an anti-diuretic hormone, so the kidneys work overtime, and the body loses more fluids. This results in thirst, weakness, dizziness as well as headaches.
The neural chaos ethanol and its byproducts create also causes disturbed sleep patterns. So hungover people wake up groggy and sleep deprived. Alcohol relaxes the throat muscles so people snore more and could suffer from sleep apnea.
Headaches are most likely also caused because alcohol makes the blood vessels in the brain and elsewhere dilate. It also has an effect on chemicals in the brain that have been implicated in headaches, such as serotonin, histamine and prostaglandins. Everything from mood swings to sensitivity to light and noise are the result of the ethanol leading the brain cells a merry dance.
It’s not just the brain that goes haywire. Alcohol also irritates the lining of your stomach. It delays the emptying of the stomach, causes fatty acids to pile up in the liver and churns out gastric acid as well as secretions from the intestine and pancreas. All of this manifests as abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhoea so characteristic of hangovers.
Indeed, the liver is so busy piling up fatty acids thanks to the alcohol that it can no longer do what it is meant to do, including producing glucose. So blood sugar levels drop, leaving one fatigued.
There are some reports that ethanol plays a minor part in causing hangovers and the true villains are other substances present in the drink, called congeners. Such congeners are more frequently found in darker drinks such as rum, brandy or red wine than in clear drinks such as gin and vodka.
Is there a cure?
There is certainly no shortage of suggestions for a hangover cure—a quick Google search brings up more than two million hits. In 2005, the British Medical Journal reported, after studying all published scientific papers on the topic, that there was no evidence of an effective hangover treatment. This does not necessarily mean that hangover cures don’t work. It could well be because no one has bothered to do formal scientific trials to show that they work.
A study has shown that large doses of Vitamin B6 (400mg taken before, during and after the party) halves the number of hangover symptoms, especially if taken before or during drinking. The flip side: The safe upper limit for Vitamin B6 according to the US Food Standards Agency is 10mg per day for long-term use. A drug called tolfenamic acid has also been shown to be effective if taken during drinking.
While there may not be an all-out cure, there are plenty of ways to ease the symptoms. A glass of water will come to the rescue, rehydrating the body. Food—especially bland, carbohydrate-rich food such as toasts or biscuits—will provide those much needed sugars. An aspirin can ease the headaches, but may also irritate the stomach.
Paracetamol is generally not advised, however, as it may worsen an already overloaded liver.
Drinking slowly, to make one drink last longer, could help, as several studies show that the more alcohol is consumed, the more likely the person is to get a hangover.
The type of drink chosen also makes a difference—a gin or vodka drinker is less likely to suffer later than a rum drinker. Champagne and cheap spirits, particularly cheap whisky, are notorious.
The best way to try and avoid a hangover, though, is to drink in moderation.
KEEP THIS IN MIND
• Try and choose clear drinks such as gin or vodka
• Avoid smoking with drinking
• Drink plenty of water to rehydrate
• A dose of Vitamin B6 before, during and after the party could help
• The next day, eat carbohydrate-food such as toast or banana
• A drug called tolfenamic acid taken while drinking reduces hangover symptoms
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