If you drink enough alcohol, you will have a hangover, period, according to a study on students. People boasting that they're immune to hangover apparently don't drink as much as they may think they do, say the scientists.
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Hangovers are the stuff of many a myth, including that stuffing oneself with bread or grease will help. It won't, according to a survey of students reported today by researchers from the Netherlands and Canada.
Nor will drinking water, because although alcohol does lead to dehydration, that isn't why you have a headache. Your head hurts because you drank poison.
"Alcohol causes dehydration and part of feeling hungover is therefore about dehydrating. However, alcohol also upsets the balance of chemicals in the blood called electrolytes - meaning that it's not just matter of replacing the water," explains Dr Michael Bloomfield
"Those who took food or water showed a slight statistical improvement in how they felt over those who didn't, but this didn't really translate into a meaningful difference," said Joris Verster of Utrecht University, the lead author. "From what we know from the surveys so far, the only practical way to avoid a hangover is to drink less alcohol."
What is a hangover, anyway? "Hangover" is the catchall name for the symptoms one feels the morning after indulging in heavy drinking – from headache to nausea to violent vomiting, weakness, confusion, the shakes, and dehydration, to name just a few of the joys. And yes, you will still have alcohol in your blood the next morning.
A hangover is like the common cold. There (still!) is no cure for the disease, which is caused by a virus: what we take is to alleviate symptoms. Thusly the hangover: no cure, merely palliatives - and superstition. Though, as Verster pointed out to Haaretz, no scientific research has been done on the effect of aspirin on the regretful.
'I'm so wasted'
One study, on a group of 789 Canadian students, was based on questionnaires about their drinking indulgences in the last month. They were asked how many drinks they had, the timeframe of consumption, and the severity of their hangover.
"Severity" is subjective. But regarding people who claimed "never" to experience hangovers – the researchers reached the startling conclusion that they simply are relatively light drinkers, they explain in their paper presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology conference today.
Based on the students' answers, the scientists estimated the blood alcohol concentration in those who experienced hangovers and those who claimed not to. In 79% of the students who claimed not to experience hangovers – the estimated blood alcohol level was low – less than 0.1% (which is still double the permissible level for driving in many European countries).
"In general, we found a pretty straight relationship; the more you drink, the more likely you are to get a hangover," says Verster. "The majority of those who in fact reported never having a hangover tended to drink less, perhaps less than they themselves thought would lead to a hangover."
Hair of the dog
What actually causes hangover? The alcohol leads to a variety of physiological reactions, which can vary from person to person.
For everyone, alcohol is a diuretic: you pee more than you would have otherwise, which can lead to dehydration. For some people, the alcohol also irritates the stomach lining, leading to nausea and/or vomiting, and can cause inflammatory reactions. The headache is due mainly to the alcohol causing your blood vessels to expand.
One popular way to "cure hangover is "hair of the dog" – which means, drinking yet more the next morning. You wake up feeling like death and whack down a shot of vodka or whatever your poison is. Does it work?
"There is no scientific evidence from double blind clinical trials that consuming alcohol during an alcohol hangover (hair of the dog) works as a hangover cure," Verster wrote in an email to Haaretz. "Up to now, there is no scientific sound evidence of an effective hangover cure."
Okay. But can you avert the whole problem by eating while you imbibe?
You cannot. The research group looked at whether eating or drinking water directly after drinking alcohol made you less likely to experience a hangover. Of the 826 Dutch students they questioned on their latest heavy drinking session, more than half ate with their booze. But based on their own rating of hangover severity – there was no significant difference between the eaters and non-eaters.
Okay. No cures. But is it true that some types of alcohol can cause worse hangovers than other types? It is true. "Many factors can aggravate hangover severity," Verster explains. "One is the amount of congeners (other alcohols, flavors, etc.) in a drink. In some drinks the congener content is much higher (e.g., tequila) than in others (e.g., vodka)."
But there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support the popular Middle Eastern contention that arak doesn't lead to hangovers, he adds.
"These are early questionnaire-based studies, and are amongst the first of their kind. This means they have limitations," Verster said. "But they do give us an indication of what happens. Our next step is to move forward with more controlled trials."