Forget death and taxes: Hangovers may be society’s most brutal equalizer. After a night of being, um, overserved, few are safe from the internal havoc that ensues, as your inflamed, free radical-swarmed organs stop releasing toxins or absorbing nutrients, your hydration-starved brain shrinks and swells inside your skull, and your liver exacts a gnarly revenge by releasing toxic compound acetaldehyde — leaving you to start cutting desperate bargains with whichever god you pray to (even, and especially, the porcelain one).
Author Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall spent the better part of a decade studying the complex state of post-drunk hell for “Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure.” He doesn’t just delve into the chemical science of hangovers; he also mixes personal memoir with some of history’s most storied mornings after. It seems Noah, for example, was the pioneer of the drinking binge, as well as the first man to wake up hung over, naked, mortified and enraged. At least he loved animals?
Bishop-Stall insists that hangovers should stop being viewed as some sort of cosmic punishment , and instead as a common condition worthy of a cure. After years of dogged research around the globe, he finds one — just in time for the holidays. But for end-of-year revelers who plan to forget all their cares over mulled wine and likely won’t remember to take his combination of six to 10 capsules (containing a mix of amino acids and vitamins) at the prescribed time — post-party and before sleep — he has one message: “Get over yourself and do what I say!” Guess we’d better listen up.
Q: In spite of the years you spent determined to find a hangover cure, you concede that hangovers can be viewed as necessary evils. Not to get too moralistic, but would you agree that if you're going to tax your body the way heavy drinking does, you ought to feel somewhat toxified the next day?
A: Yeah. I think that’s one of the questions at the heart of the book. The more you can be guided away from being constantly pickled, it’s probably going to be better for your life. But why does it have to be so brutal when you’re inside it? Can’t there be a way that we can just apologize and make it stop? The flip side is: Why don’t we actually pay attention to it? It’s such a visceral and aggressive warning system that we still don’t pay attention to!
Q: You write about how, in Greek myth, the king of Athens decreed that only gods could handle straight wine, and that mortals had to mix it with water, lest they "go mad and/or die." Ancient society certainly seemed concerned with moderation.
A: And to think how far we’ve gone! To have one ideal be that even a glass of wine — which was probably 14 percent [alcohol] back then — be watered down to the strength of a weak beer to keep society functioning; and then to go, within a hundred years, to the pursuit of distillation, which was kind of like the race to the moon: Going from saying, “Wine is too strong, let’s water it down,” to “Let’s make alcohol as strong and pure as possible.”
Q: You suggest that with hangovers, timing is everything — and that if you've done nothing to prevent it while drinking, by the next morning it's way too late.
A: Timing is everything! I cannot stress that enough.
Q: So what does that mean for all the morning-after IV-drip vitamin cocktails marketed as cures?
A: They’re probably one of the best ways to deal with a hangover once you’ve got one. You’re being soothed and taken care of, and if all goes well, the duration of your hangover will be shorter and the intensity will be less. But I would not consider that curing a hangover; I would consider that treating a hangover.
Q: You've developed your own hangover cure that currently requires swallowing six to 10 capsules. Do you plan to streamline the process? Or do you feel that the extra effort is part of earning the solution?
A: For me, once I’m taking three pills, I may as well take six — but not everybody feels that way, and certainly marketers don’t like it. Everybody tries to put [hangover concoctions] into a liquid; apparently that’s sexier. But from my experience, what works is taking the pills, and every time I try a product that has all [the same] stuff in it, and it’s sitting in a little bottle, it doesn’t do the same thing. I don’t know why.
Q: Will you try marketing your cure?
A: I go back and forth. Everybody has gone, “Dude, if you’ve got the cure, you’re going to be a billionaire!” At the same time, I’ve met everybody who thought that — and none of them are billionaires.
Q: You write about meeting a woman who says she enjoys hangovers, that they mellow her out. Could we actually spin them as being positive, the way we accept that a common cold forces us to relax?
A: Absolutely. Certainly the idea of only having to deal with the crisis at hand, especially for people whose lives are overcomplicated to begin with . . . I think, weirdly enough, there are people who get addicted to hangovers.
Q: As we approach the holiday season, what should partygoers keep in mind — besides your capsule solution — to mitigate the effects of a few too many?
A: Your hangover is going to be twice as bad if you smoke — it has to with dilation of blood vessels. So if you’re a social smoker, and only smoke when you drink, that’s going to make it way worse. And if you’re on a diet, not eating enough before you drink will begin all the horror in your gut. And if you get to the next morning and already have a hangover, maybe that’s the time to become religious.
Q: You mean, stop drinking? Or start praying?
Q: Let's talk about "hair of the dog." Many people staunchly believe that more alcohol helps — and in the book, you explain the chemistry of how it counteracts the body's nauseating alcohol withdrawal. But isn't it more of a foolishly desperate measure than a long-term solution?
A: The tipping point — where you suddenly feel better, [before] embarking on a whole new hangover — is very delicate. If I have a pure hangover, as soon as I can keep anything down, I start with a little food and get into some water, like a hot tub or lake, and have a drink. The trick is talking to yourself while you’re drinking, and listening to yourself while you talk; making sure you understand that this is a medicinal drink and not the next stage of the party.
Q: You've had your fair share of brutal mornings after and yet you seem utterly skeptical of teetotalers.
A: Oh, I am. I think it comes from my Irish roots, where the two most dangerous forces in any Irish community are the drunkest man and the soberest man. I don’t trust either of them. There’s a fascinating continuum, and I don’t mind putting it out there . . . Hitler never had a goddamn drink!
Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in New York.
By Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall
Penguin. 416 pp. $17.