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We need more research on hangovers, scientist argues

Everyone seems to have a go-to hangover remedy. Some people swear a Prairie Oyster—raw egg, Worcestershire sauce, and a splash of hot sauce—makes the nausea and headache subside (or maybe the beverage is so disgusting people forget they’re hung over?). Others believe a greasy breakfast makes them feel OK again. Still some crack open a beer, believing that only the hair of the dog can help them. But are all these efforts useless? Is it even possible to get rid of a hangover?  

The only sure way to avoid a hangover is, of course, to abstain from drinking. But there are at least some science-backed ways to make the symptoms more bearable, says Alyson Mitchell, a professor and John Kinsella Chair in the department of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis. 

Every year U.S. companies lose an estimated $148 billion on hangovers, says Alyson Mitchell, but experts know little about them. Hangovers cost so much because so many people miss work and if they do show, they flub basic tasks because being hung over makes people a bit, well, stupid. That's just one example of why we need more research on hangovers, Mitchell argued during a presentation at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting. 

“The interesting thing about a hangover is that really it is a metabolic storm that is going on,” says Mitchell, a professor and John Kinsella Chair in the department of food science and technology at University of California, Davis. Hangovers involve a variety of systems, causing headaches, stomach discomfort, and immune responses like out-of-control inflammation. 

Mitchell notes that there a wealth of research on alcohol and alcoholism, but there is little research on hangovers (PubMed has more than 700,000 articles on alcohol and only 400 on hangovers). While she believes researchers might shy away from studying hangovers because finding a hangover cure might encourage excessive drinking, she thinks that examining hangovers can improve our understanding of how the immune systems, metabolisms, GI systems react to alcohol. 

“We really don’t know much about a hangover and it is an incredibly puzzling response—the symptoms only show up after all the alcohol is metabolized and gone from the body. And that in itself is amazing,” says Mitchell.  “The fact that something is the most toxic after it has been eliminated from the body [is unusual].” 

On to the “cures”: One way to avoid hangover symptoms is to drink water while you’re drinking alcohol. Alcohol works as a diuretic causing that achy head (so does caffeine; consuming alcohol and an energy drink will double that hangover). 

“You lose a lot of liquid through urination—four times as much water is lost as you take in,” Mitchell explains. “Ethanol is also a vasodilator and that [also] causes some of the headache issues.”  

People can also treat that icky hangover feeling by drinking fruit juice, which helps us hydrate and replace carbohydrates lost from drinking.  It’s also why eating toast or crackers sometimes makes us feel better.

Prior to drinking, people should eat a high fat meal, something that includes olive oil, meat, or dairy. The fat coats the stomach, meaning it takes the body longer to absorb the alcohol. The day after drinking, eating eggs helps replace cysteine, an amino acid, lost from alcohol consumption. Our bodies don’t easily replenish the amino acid and cysteine-rich eggs help restore it.  

”Hangovers are so common and prevalent in every society,” she says. “[Yet] I found it to be almost shocking that there is so little real research done on hangovers.” 

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