Following the “conventional wisdom” is a good idea sometimes. It means that most people think this is a good idea or a good plan to follow, but it’s not something they’ve rigorously tested. On a first date, conventional wisdom says that the gentleman should pay for the lady’s entertainment. And most people would agree with that.
But what if the woman thinks it’s terribly sexist? Or what if it’s a cougar-y kind of setup, with a mature wealthy woman and her much younger pool boy? These are cases in which conventional wisdom—while not invalid in general—just won’t fly.
So it is with hangovers. Drinking and feeling nice and relaxed during a date or New Year’s Eve bacchanal or other social event is great, but sometimes we overdo it with booze. So, rather being filled than fond memories from last night’s debauchery, your mind and broken body wake up with a headache, irritability, sensitivity to sound and light, nausea at the very idea of food, and so on. While most people who drink have at some time suffered these dreaded symptoms, it’s also true that almost every person you ask has a different explanation, or even better, a hangover cure that your friends swear by.
These well-meaning “hangover specialists” are all paying forward different versions of that same conventional wisdom: namely, that there is a single best cure for the post-drinking blues.
SPOILER ALERT: There isn’t. What there are, however, are five main “explanations” for what ails ya after downing more than your share of alcohol, their accompanying “cures,” and the main reason why that “cure” is pure baloney.
Cause 1: Dehydration
The theory: Alcohol, according to the conventional wisdom, is a diuretic. However, what it actually does is put the kibosh on what keeps you from feeling like you have to go all the time. So you pee a lot more. This further dehydrates you, and being dehydrated provokes massive headaches. Added as supporting evidence is that few drinkers are also downing water, soda, or tea, making the body even more prone to dehydration. Thus, dehydration = hangover.
The “cure”: Drink lots of non-caffeinated beverages, while you’re imbibing but definitely once you get home. (An under-drinking-age friend of mine in high school used to keep a pitcher of iced tea in her closet to drink when she got home from whatever Boone’s Farm wine or MD 20/20 debauch she had attended.) Drinking all this replacement fluid, the conventional wisdom says, will hydrate you and keep you from getting a hangover. (So it’s more prevention than cure, but that’s close enough for our purposes.)
The problem: Dehydration can cause headaches, general shakiness, and malaise—not to mention death—but doesn’t incite the other symptoms of hangovers. Scientists have found that hangover headaches are closer to migraines than to actual dehydration headaches. Not to mention that alcohol just makes a drinker feel like he has to pee more—it doesn’t actually make one produce more urine than normal, so has nothing to do with dehydration. Finally, if you drink a bunch of water when you wake up with a hangover, not only don’t you cure it with this hydration but you also will urinate a lot more … which can dehydrate you.
Cause 2: Alcohol withdrawal
The theory: Alcohol is addictive and causes chemical dependency, not just psychologically but also physically. When you hit the drink particularly hard and then stop suddenly (because you passed out or just fell asleep), your body goes into withdrawal and that creates the withdrawal-like symptoms of a hangover.
The “cure”: This one is popular because it involves more booze. If you’re going through cigarette or heroin withdrawal, then smoking a cigarette or shooting some Dr. Feelgood will immediately shut off the symptoms. It would make sense that another addictive substance, alcohol, also causes withdrawal when stopped cold (wild) turkey, right? It follows logically that more alcohol—that “hair of the dog that bit ya”—is how you stop the pain of withdrawal (aka your hangover).
The problem: In fact, it doesn’t follow. Even if a substance is considered physically addictive, as nicotine and opiates are, you don’t get “addicted” to it from one session of usage. If you were already addicted to smoking and quit suddenly but then started again, your withdrawal symptoms would cease, it’s true. But you would have had these symptoms continuously when you weren’t smoking, not just one night after too many cigarettes. If you’re such a lush that you shake uncontrollably and hallucinate when you aren’t drinking, you should stop reading this blog and head over to the rehab center immediately. But if, like most people, you simply have the cosmic blecch (aka hangover) after a night of intemperance, more booze will only postpone your hangover, not cure it.
Cause 3: Vitamin deficiency
The theory: Vitamin B12 helps with some ailments that have symptoms in common with hangover. As does Vitamin C. Sodium and potassium are lost when dehydration occurs. Milk thistle and ginseng aid in liver function so those toxins can be cleansed out. In other words, vitamins in general will cure a hangover. Since vitamins are good and hangovers are bad, one obviously counteracts the other.
The cure: Whatever vitamins you think are lost due to drinking alcohol, take them ASAP because hangovers are caused by these missing nutrients. Mix the yin of healthful supplementation with the yang of intoxication and hangover, and boom: No more hangover because your chi is balanced once again.
The problem: Hangovers are not caused by missing nutrients. Researchers have administered to hung-over subjects each purported vitamin cure in isolation from other vitamins to see if any was the particular missing nutrient causing the hangover. None of them did any more than any other, which was nothing anyway. Also, we’ve already seen that dehydration is not a cause of hangovers, so the alleged loss of sodium and potassium associated with dehydration doesn’t even happen.
The “cure” that works: Time
Yes, that’s right. You have to grin (or not) and bear it. Being hydrated will make one feel better, so if you think you might be dehydrated, drink some water or decaf tea (caffeine being an actual diuretic). If you think your vitamins are depleted, take some vitamins, since it can’t hurt. And if you think a hair of the dog is what you need, admit that you just want to be tipsy again and go for it.
None of these are going to get rid of your hangover in a physical sense, but there is much to be said for placebos. New Year’s Eve is a major drinking holiday, and the holidays are for believing in miracles, right? So consider each of the techniques debunked above to be extra-strength placebos that will bring about a miracle recovery.