Disclaimer: Before we delve into the myths about hangover cures and the effective ways you can deal with a hangover, let’s get one big thing out of the way: As far as your body is concerned, alcohol is a poison. A little now and then might make you stronger— see The Princess Bride for a field-guide to better living through micro-dosing on poison— but a lot at one time throws your metabolic processes out of whack and your body goes full-bore at trying to purge itself of the Cutty Sark you so thoughtfully shared with it. The only 100% effective hangover prevention is to drink conservatively or not at all, and the only 100% effective hangover “cure” is time and fluids. If you never drank, however, you wouldn’t be here reading this guide, so let’s get on with the debunking and validating.
The Myths—Hair of the Dog and Other Not So Great Ideas: In every culture with access to alcohol, myths abound about how to cure a hangover. In Ireland it used to be said you should bury your friend up to his neck in wet sand to help him through his hangover. A Haitian myth has it that turning the cork of the hangover-causing-bottle into a voodoo doll and sticking 13 pins in it will keep the hangover at bay. Other strange remedies from around the globe include breathing in the smoke from a coal fire and rubbing limes on your arms. We won’t spend any time debunking why rubbing fruit on your body isn’t going to cure a hangover, but we will look at the most common remedy claims.
Drinking More Alcohol, aka Hair of the Dog: This is quite likely the most heavily toted hangover cure in the boozin’-recovery handbook. Unfortunately it’s completely ineffective. Drinking when you’re suffering from a hangover makes you— temporarily!— feel better simply because alcohol dulls your senses. You could just as easily prescribe a double-shot of Tequila as a “remedy” for bashing your thumb with a hammer. You might achieve temporary relief from your hangover— if it works at all— but you’ll just prolong the agony. Your body has to process all the toxins you spent all night shoving in it (delicious or not, alcohol is no wheat-grass smoothie when it comes to being body-friendly), and giving it more just extends the timetable.
Drinking Juice/Coffee Afterward: The base premise behind both of these seems to be that drinking lots of juice or coffee will speed up your metabolism and thus the processing of the alcohol. The problem with juice is that it would take gallons of juice to get enough sugar in your system to really change your metabolic rate— an already suspect line of reasoning since researchers in the 1970s established that drinking lots of juice slows down the metabolizing of alcohol. Then, even if the questionable trick worked, you’d have to deal with the massive insulin spike and sugar crash that followed— which can be just as nasty as a hangover. Hydration is important, especially after drinking it up, but juice doesn’t do anything special to help you.
Coffee fails in a related fashion. If you drank enough coffee to speed up your metabolism enough to effect the processing of alcohol you’d give yourself heart palpitations and the side effects of mega-dosing on caffeine would dwarf the side effects of your hangover. Even worse, one study suggests that coffee-plus-hangover is a recipe for bad decision making. If a glass of V8 or a strong cup of coffee makes you feel better/sober up then sure, drink some. Just don’t expect it to magically absorb all that vodka. Between the two, the V8 is the superior choice— coffee is a diuretic and light on any nutritional value, whereas your V8 is packed with vitamins and salt, both of which you could use some more of after a night of drinking.
Slamming Pain Killers: Don’t load up on over-the-counter pain killers before bed. Not only do drugs like Aspirin and Acetaminophen have short windows of effectiveness in the body— you’ll be asleep for their most effective time— but they’re hard on your stomach and liver. That’s not normally an issue when you’re sober, but now is the time to pay attention to those bottle-warnings. Acetaminophen is especially harsh on your liver— thus the big warning on the box of Tylenol about not taking it along with alcohol. Save the pain killers for the next day and only if you really need them— again, you need to let your body focus on purging the alcohol.
What Works—The Night Before and The Slow Crawl to Sobriety: Just because drinking a gallon of orange juice and jamming pins into the cork from a bottle won’t cure your hangover doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Like we pointed out above, the only fail-safe to a hangover-free life is to drink little or no alcohol. For those times that a good time and a good bottle get the better of you, you can armor up with these tried and tested tips.
Drinking Water: Water is a magical elixir that makes your body function. You can never go wrong drinking lots of it and it’s the absolute best thing to keep yourself from getting hungover and speeding up hangover recovery. Even better than just drinking a lot of water after the fact is drinking water throughout the prior night. My unofficial never-have-hangovers routine is to drink a tall glass of water for every unit of alcohol I consume— a unit being one of the equivalency portions they teach in you in health class— 1 shot=1 glass of wine=1 beer. Drink water frequently through the night, drink lots of water before you go to bed, drink more water in the morning. In addition to keeping you well hydrated, this technique also serves to regulate alcohol consumption. Would anyone really do 20 shots in an evening if they had to drink around 2 gallons of water to go with them?
Eat Up: Drinking liquids doesn’t close the valve in your stomach or jump start the metabolic process—one of the reasons drinking cola fattens you up so quickly— so make sure you eat well before you start drinking. The myth side of this tip is that food some how absorbs alcohol and locks it up until your body digests the food. The real reason is the valve in your stomach closes to start the digestion process and it takes longer for the alcohol to absorb into your system—a huge cheeseburger is a metaphorical whiskey-sponge, not a literal one. A solid meal will cause your stomach to focus on slowing the movement of food and liquid through your body so the digestive process can occur. If you skip the pre-bar-hopping meal, the alcohol you drink is essentially boarding a speed train to your blood stream. Focus on fat and protein-loaded foods to provide a nice slow-burning meal that will help regulate the absorption of alcohol.
Don’t neglect a good breakfast, either. You may not feel like eating in the morning, but the last thing your body needs is you stumbling around like a zombie on and empty stomach. Mopping up the mess you made with a bottle of Tequila— just because it’s a lighter-colored liquor doesn’t always mean it’ll protect you from a hangover— is hard work, and you’d be a jerk not to feed the help. Get a solid breakfast with complex carbs and some protein— a case for a farmer’s omelet and some thick-sliced toast if there ever was one or perhaps a nice delicious bacon sandwich— to help your body power through.
We could write a book about all the hangover cures that don’t work and a very small informational pamphlet about the ones that do. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to debunk a hangover myth, however, and if you use our simple checklist below you can debunk myths as you come across them:
Would I do this if I wasn’t hung over?: For some reason hangover cures always seem like some sort of puritanical punishment for your drinking sins. A good rule for evaluating a hangover cure is to ask if you’d do it under normal circumstances as part of a sensible health routine. Drinking lots of water? Always healthy. A little extra B-complex vitamins? Can’t go wrong there. Huffing the smoke of a coal fire? Doesn’t sound like a regular post-workout routine.
Are the mechanics of this cure clear and scientifically-based?: You don’t need to have a degree in molecular biology or understand how the potassium pumps in your cells work to use this one. Question any cure that seems to have “and then… magic!” as a component. Nutritionists the world over will advise you to eat protein for long lasting energy— a plate of eggs gives you much more energy throughout the morning than a bowl of cereal, for example— so it’s not a long shot to see how eating a high-protein meal before a night on the town would help keep your metabolism steady. When in doubt, hit up Google to read up on the science behind an alleged cure.
Will this, potentially, make me more sick?: You’d think this would be an obvious one, but given the hangover cures floating around it’s not. Drinking raw eggs, Rocky-style, sweating it out in a sauna, running laps, and mega-dosing on vitamins, are all examples of things people do to beat back a hangover that aren’t really so helpful. You don’t want to give yourself salmonella poisoning, or further dehydrate yourself with hard exercise, or tax your liver even more with additional crap to process out. You wouldn’t go jogging to “cure” the flu; treat a hangover accordingly. Using those basic rules as guidelines, you’ll be able to discard hangover cures that are outright ineffective, will give you food poisoning, or worse. It’s no fun being hungover but it’s less fun ending up in the hospital because your friend convinced you that the perfect cure for too much Tequila would be raw eggs followed by a jog to a smokey sauna.”