In a recent New Yorker, Joan Acocella wrote a very interesting piece about hangovers, which you can read here:
For those of you who are too lazy to actually click on a link and read a whole article, I’ve paraphrased and plagiarized some of it here. Most of my friends will find immediate use for the insights and tips included here, so I couldn’t bear to leave any of you in the dark.
First, of course, we have to go over the science of hangovers. When you drink enough to see the world through the happy lens of alcoholic cheer, several things are going on chemically. First, alcohol interferes with the secretion of the hormone that inhibits urination, so you pee a lot, and get dehydrated, which makes you thirsty. You know how that vicious cycle goes. Alcohol also induces hypoglycemia (low blood sugar… which is odd, since alcoholics usually have high blood sugar, and drink is basically composed of simple carbohydrates and nothing else), so your hangover may be tinged with light-headedness and weakness (in the knees and everywhere else). As the liver breaks down the alcohol, it produces toxins which are more toxic than the alcohol itself, which cause the nausea and further delights you discover upon waking the next morning, and which characterize that state Poles call a “howling of kittens”. Finally, the alcohol has produced inflammation, which causes the white blood cells to flood the blood-stream with molecules called cytokines, which are responsible for making you feel achy and exhausted, regardless of whether they’re in your bloodstream because of the regular flu or the bottle flu.
How severe your hangover – or, as the Danes say, your “carpenter in the forehead”- is depends not only on how much you drank, but what you drank, your genes, how often you drink heavily and what else you consumed the night before. Drinks with higher levels of congeners – impurities either added or naturally occurring, which make the alcohol look darker, like red wine, whiskey and stout beer – add to the howling of the kittens. To lessen your “wooden throat” (France), steer toward white wine, gin and vodka. And if you’re seriously dedicated to calming the “stoned Rastafarian trying to split your coconut” (Jamaica, why do you ask?); drink more. Its true that heavy drinkers suffer lesser hangovers (this tends to piss off the most righteous of the tee-totalers, but I suspect its just a sign of Saint Stupid at work). Increasing one’s overall alcoholic intake may not be an option for some forty percent of East Asians and Jews, who carry a less efficient variant of the gene which creates aldehyde dehydrogenase, an enzyme necessary for breaking down alcohol. They get plowed faster than we do. Perhaps that’s why the Korean term for a hangover is “a water buffalo plowing in my head.” Perhaps not.
Once you’re in the pickle created by getting pickled, there are as many remedies as there are drunks. Russians drink pickle juice (with or without a shot of vodka), which doesn’t work without the vodka, I’m happy to be able to report. The pickle juice will distract you, it will provide a placebo effect, it might calm your stomach, but in the end it’s a diuretic, so it will make you more dehydrated than before. The hair-of-the-dog does work because the liver first goes about breaking down the ethanol and then moves on to the methanol, which is a secondary ingredient in many spirits and wines. Methanol breaks down into formic acid, which is highly toxic. This is the stage in which we feel most grievous. If you add more alcohol now, the liver goes back to work on a new supply of ethanol, and stops adding formic acid to the mix. Granted, there’s now more methanol and thus formic acid for you to deal with, but it delays the worst symptoms. Grab a Bloody Mary or a mimosa, both of which provide low-congener ethanol, liquids and a few vitamins.
Other cures, like the greasy meal cure (go have breakfast at Dennys!), eating two McDonalds hamburgers (thought to contain a secret ingredient for hangovers), spicy foods, eggs, prairie oysters (vinegar, raw egg and Worcestershire sauce), sugar, Irn Bru (Scotland’s other national drink specifically formulated for hangovers and which is said to taste like warm plastic), milk, milkshakes, smoothies, buttermilk (also said to soothe when poured over the head), pickled herring, pickled plum, cumin seeds, coca leaves all work, not entirely by power of suggestion. They share the benefit of the hair-of-the-dog, insofar as the liver slows down breaking down methanol and turns to new alimentary tasks, but mostly these other remedies make you thirsty so you drink more water. Lab tests have proven some efficacy for some cures: milk thistle extract seems to protect cells from damage from alcohol. Prickly pear extract has proven to provide relief from nausea, dry mouth and food aversion, but not with the other symptoms such as headache, for which you’ll need aspirin (don’t use Tylenol –acetaminophen – because alcohol increases its toxicity to the liver). The OTC products NoHang and Hangover Helper have milk-thistle extract in them. Of course the ultimate way to prevent “the surf in the sea” (Spain) is to abstain, but don’t forget that you might be denying the world of the next great alcoholic genius. Where would we be with out William Faulkner, Kingsley Amis, Ulysses S. Grant, John Barrymore, Isadora Duncan or Dorothy Parker? Are you sure you’re reaching your full potential?