A Doctor’s Guide To Hangovers - Men's Health Magazine Australia

A Doctor’s Guide To Hangovers

What they are and, more importantly, how to beat them this summer.

A groggy head is all too often part and parcel of this time of year, as the Christmas drinks come out in full force and work parties drop an insight into colleagues that you’d rather do without. But is the morning after really just par for the course? 

From greasy foods, multivits and end-of-the-night Maccas, the supposed ‘hangover cure’ list is long (just ask the internet). So, what actually stacks up medically and (better yet) helps beat a hangover?  

Hangovers  

From the ‘dry horrors’ to the ‘grogs’, the term hangover comes with different names. Medically speaking, it’s known as ‘Veisalgia’ and represents a collection of symptoms and signs that follow on from alcohol intake.  

It’s well documented that the frequency and amount we’re drinking increases this time of year, and along with it so do the after effects. A huge range of symptoms can come with your average hangover, but the most common include fatigue, nausea, headaches, stomach upset, anxiety and muscle aches. If you’re really in a world of hurt, more severe impacts can be vomiting, diarrhoea, tremor, sweats and low blood pressure.  

The Cause?  

Aside from drinking (which goes without saying), the actual cause of a hangover is surprisingly still up for debate within science. Alcohol (more specifically, Ethanol) effects a huge number of processes within the brain and body, and byproducts of the production process (congeners) are also flagged as being involved.  

Theories abound and it’s likely that a little bit of everything contributes to that morning after headache and nausea. Dehydration, a build up of metabolites, sleep deprivation, direct toxic effects of alcohol, changes to blood sugars and even impacts on hormones are all felt to play their part.  

One thing we do know for sure is that a hangover is more likely (and often worse) the faster and higher blood alcohol levels go up then down. Studies also consistently show that symptoms kick in when blood alcohol levels drop back down to zero, ie when you’ve sobered up.  

Created Equal?  

Turns out the old adage that not all hangovers are created equal is backed by science too (we all know that mate who has two drinks and literally can’t move the next day). Factors influencing whether we’ll get a hangover and how bad it’ll be are many but include: 

  • How high blood alcohol levels get 
  • How quickly blood alcohol rises (a crucial one) 
  • Hydration levels  
  • Food intake & blood glucose 
  • Genetic factors 
  • The amount of ‘congeners’ (byproducts) in the chosen drink 

Are there cures? 

So are there actually any science backed ways to prevent or cure a hangover? We hate to be the ones to break it to you, but there’s no fool-proof methods or miracles here – the only sure way to not get a hangover is to not drink at all. However, there are a few evidenced based tips for making the bottle easier on the body: 

Timing  

A major factor in hangovers appears to be how high and (importantly) how quickly blood alcohol levels rise and hit our system. Drinking slower, spacing alcoholic with non-alcoholic drinks, eating something before/during and making sure there’s a mixer involved are thus good ways to help the liver keep pace. 

Hydration 

One of the keys to hangover causes is alcohol acting as a diuretic within the body (it makes us pee out all our water) so staying hydrated really is hangover busting 101. Going for a ‘one to one’ with a non-alcoholic drink between each drink can be helpful, as can hydrating at the end of the night and the morning. Unless you’re really dry (i.e. vomiting/diarrhoea is involved) regular water should do the trick. 

Glucose Hit 

Alcohol tampers with our glucose metabolism and gut, so sugar levels are often on the lower end the next day. Restocking the tank with small regular amounts of simple carbohydrates has been shown to help, and just watch out that any greasy next day eats don’t upset the tum.  

Hit Snooze  

A big part of a hangover is actually the fact that even if we do sleep, the alcohol makes it broken. Resting up and sleeping can actually help a lot so keep in mind you might need more hours than usual after a night out.  

The Mind  

‘Hangxiety’ is actually really common, and feeling anxious, low or guilty is normal. Reminding yourself this can all be part of the actual hangover itself biologically can help, and it’s important to go easy on yourself the next day and do something that sparks you up (like a workout, walk or catch up). 

Fad ditching  

A whole range of products are marketed and pushed as being miracle ‘hangover cures’, however for the majority there’s no actual science here to back them up. Marketed hangover pills, powders or IV drips aren’t proven to do much more than offer hydration and vitamins so save your money and stick to the basics.  

Last Words  

The key with hangover health is to know that they come as part and parcel of our body getting a bit of a knock around from drinking, so moderation and looking after it needs to be 101. It’s important to not demonize a few drinks or a night out, but making sure there are alcohol free days across every week is important. Aim to stick to recommended guidelines of no more than 4 standards in one sitting or 10 across the whole week where you can.  

If you’re worried about how your drinking’s tracking or how someone around you is doing, then reaching out is never ever a matter of shame. Help is available at Turning Point on 1800 250 015 and Life Line Australia on 13 11 14.

By Kieran Kennedy

As a medical doctor and psychiatry resident, with degrees in psychology, physiology and medicine / surgery, Dr. Kieran Kennedy sees, first hand, the absolute importance in advocating for mental health. He is also writer & speaker, natural bodybuilder and fitness model.

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