Hair of the dog? Wine before beer? Why everything you know about hangovers, and how to cure them, is wrong – or unproven
Why do I feel so bad?
Alcohol. Undoubtedly alcohol. Your headache, nausea, sweats, tiredness, apathy, that nebulous sense of guilt – they indubitably come from drinking too much last night.
But then again, not alcohol. The onset of a hangover means your blood’s concentration of ethanol – the alcohol we appreciate for its intoxicating qualities – is zero, or fast approaching it. This paradox is the central mystery of the hangover.
What’s going on inside me?
That’s unclear. There probably isn’t just one cause for all the recognised hangover symptoms (see “47 ways not to love your liver“). Some may be only indirectly related to alcohol consumption: fatigue, for example, could be down to burning the midnight oil or busting too many moves on the dance floor. Or it could be the impact on sleep quality of forcing your body to break down a large amount of fluid sustenance – not to mention a late-night takeaway – just before bedtime.
Others, like dehydration, are side effects. Your pounding head and mouth like a wrestler’s jockstrap probably result from alcohol’s suppression of the antidiuretic hormone vasopressin, a process that makes you pee more. During the hangover vasopressin snaps back to a higher level than normal, although there appears to be no correlation between that, or indeed any other drink-induced hormonal imbalance, and the severity of the hangover.
As for the rest, it’s largely educated guesswork. The delayed onset of a hangover means that the metabolic products of ethanol are prime suspects. A 2005 study in Japan found that people with inactive genes for making enzymes that break down acetaldehyde, …