No one wants to ring in the New Year with a splitting headache and a sandpapery tongue, and yet "Hangover Cure" tends to be the number one Google search on New Year's Day. If that search term brought you here, sorry: There's no silver bullet cure for the side effects of boozin'. But based on what we know about hangovers, scientifically speaking, there are some things you can do to help.
That's the subject of the latest video from American Chemical Society's Reactions series, which you can watch at the top of the post. Here's a guide to avoiding National Hangover Day, using facts from the video and a few of our own:
1. Don't drink
Ha! Ha. Ha.
We know this isn't a fair or reasonable solution for most adults on New Year's Eve, or most social occasions. But not drinking (or drinking in moderation) really is the only way to definitely totally avoid a hangover.
This feels like a good time to talk about what causes a hangover. When you consume alcohol, enzymes in your liver break it down into acetaldehyde, which is in turn broken down into acetate. Acetate is pretty harmless, but acetaldehyde is toxic. At best, it's an irritant that can cause, well, pretty much all the symptoms you associate with a hangover. At worst, it might even be carcinogenic.
Ideally your body would turn all of that acetaldehyde into acetate right quick, but your liver doesn't have an endless supply of the necessary enzyme. If you drink too much too quickly, your liver will have to make more enzymes to break down the toxin — which means the nasty chemical gets to sit around doing damage in the meantime.
These effects are compounded by something called glutamine rebound. As a depressant, alcohol dampens the body's production of a natural stimulant called glutamine. As soon as your drinking stops, your body tries to fix this by making a ton of the stuff. Since most folks do their serious drinking late at night, that means your brain is full of stimulants just as you're getting to sleep. That can make the grogginess of a hangover feel even worse.
To top it off, alcohol irritates the cells in your stomach lining. This is meant to protect you, but it means that you'll want to vomit (yuck), and it may continue to cause nausea and gastrointestinal distress in the morning.
There are probably other factors, too. Hangovers are still a bit mysterious to science.
2. Don't be a woman and don't be old
Did you know that women tend to have worse hangovers than men do? A few studies have suggested that this is true, though it likely has more to do with average body size than gender.
It's also likely that hangovers get worse with age, because most processes in the body tend to get less efficient with time. It's natural that your liver's ability to nip toxins in the bud — and your body's ability to bounce back from the resulting symptoms — would go downhill. But some studies suggest that young drinkers actually manage to get more severe hangovers anyway, probably because they don't know how to pace their drinking.
3. Pick your drinks carefully
Okay, now that we've gotten past the stuff you're not going to do and the stuff you have zero control over: Some serious advice.
My first ever hangover came from drinking dark rum, and it turns out that's totally normal: Studies suggest that dark liquors are more likely to cause hangovers than light or clear ones. That's because they have more of the chemical byproducts of fermentation known as cogeners.
Of course, drinks with a lower alcohol content are better for your body, because they give your liver more time to make those important enzymes. Shots of vodka may be incrementally better, hangover-prevention-wise, than shots of dark rum — but you're better off with wine or beer.
BUT: Remember that old saying "beer before liquor, never been sicker"? There may be something to it: Carbonation may actually make the body absorb alcohol more quickly. That's why champagne can give you a nasty headache in the morning, and it's a good reason not to warm up with a beer before you do those shots.
Avoiding sugary drinks is a no-brainer, too, since the ickiness of a sugar crash will only worsen your plight. Some research suggests that diet drinks might be problematic as mixers, too, so if you can't enjoy a straight drink you probably shouldn't be drinking.
4. Eat something hearty before you drink
I know you health-conscious cuties are probably saving your calories for jello shots, but that's a big mistake. Eating a nice meal before drinking alcohol will slow your body's absorption of it, which is good news for your busy little liver. It will also keep your stomach from getting irritated as quickly. Heavy foods and proteins are an especially smart choice. And hey, having a full stomach will give you extra motivation to pace yourself: Nobody wants to puke.
5. Drink SO much water, so much
Try to have a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage you consume. For starters, it's going to help you pace yourself. But it's also going to help keep you from getting horribly dehydrated, which is another common hangover cause: Alcohol keeps your body from producing a hormone called vasopressin, which regulates the amount of water your kidneys can hold. That's why drunk you pees more than sober you, and if you don't replace that water you're going to be sorry in the morning.
6. Try to stop a couple of hours before bed
Remember how alcohol can mess with your sleep? Well, one way to make sure you get a good night's rest after hitting the bottle is to give yourself an hour or more to sober up. If your head hits the pillow after your body has already started recovering, you might avoid that problematic glutamine rebound and get a good night's sleep. It won't keep you from feeling hungover, but you'll feel a little more human than you would have otherwise.
7. Oh god it's morning, and I'm hungover, what do I do
Like we said before, there's no silver bullet. If you want, you can shell out some cash for a medicated IV from one of the companies that sells such hangover cures. But the results may disappoint you.
Once a hangover happens, it's happening. You can treat the pain like you would any other headache (but not with Tylenol, because your liver is already working overtime), and you can continue to treat your dehydration by drinking more water. Don't get drunk again to make yourself feel better, that's really stupid, and you know it. Your poor body wants some chill time. Hear that plea not to take the "hair of the dog"? That's your liver. Your sad, tired little liver.
ACS recommends eating some eggs, since they contain l-cysteine, which helps break down any lingering acetaldehyde. Bananas may help by replenishing potassium lost in your dehydrated stupor, and fresh fruit juices (or smoothies) might give you a sugar and vitamin boost without upsetting your stomach. Drinking sports drinks to boost your electrolytes isn't a terrible idea, and pickle juice is a cheaper alternative.
When all is said and done, there's not much you can do to make a hangover disappear. But making smart choices the night before always, always helps.