The science of hangovers (and why there’s no miracle cure)

Is there a cure for a hangover?
Is there a cure for a hangover?

A bacon roll. A cold shower. An industrial amount of Irn-Bru or Lucozade. Everyone has an opinion on what the ultimate ‘hangover cure’ is.

Whether or not a hangover can actually be cured is an age-old question – the answer to which seems to differ from person to person. But what about hangover prevention?

With help from dietitian and nutritionist, Dr Sarah Schenker, we separate the myths from the facts when it comes to the morning after a heavy night.

Can hangovers be prevented?

Biologically speaking, a hangover happens because your body is putting the breakdown of alcohol above everything else. This process prompts an enormous loss of water from the body and – as you may have already gathered – significant dehydration.

In fact, according to Dr Schenker, the bulk of what we feel when we’re hungover is actually down to dehydration symptoms. “Because the body sees alcohol as a toxin, once you start drinking, it becomes a priority to metabolise the alcohol and excrete it from the body.”

Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to avoid that dreaded hangover feeling after one too many drinks.

Eating and hydrating strategically before a big night out can lessen the effects, but once you’ve consumed more than a ‘safe’ volume of alcohol, there really is no going back.

Above all else, Dr Schenker stresses that being well hydrated before and during a drinking session is key to combating a killer hangover.

“If people go out drinking straight from work, it’s likely that they are not particularly dehydrated, but they might not be as well hydrated as they could be.

“After a couple of glasses of wine, the alcohol is going to have more of an effect because you’re already coming from a semi-dehydrated state to becoming more dehydrated. People will feel the effects much more intensely than they would if they were fully hydrated.”

The size of your meals affects your hangover

How much you eat before a party or night out could play a part in how unwell you feel the next day. “Some people can knock back a couple of drinks quite quickly because they haven’t eaten anything and they’re using it as a bit of a filler,” says Dr Schenker.

“If you have a small meal in your stomach, you may not be so ferociously ready for those first couple of drinks.”

Carbs aren’t a surefire cure

Sadly, the theory that a hearty helping of carbohydrates – like a big bowl of pasta, or a pizza – before a drinking session will reduce the effects of booze or even stave off a bad hangover isn’t accurate.

“The alcoholic drink will be quickly absorbed into the body. It doesn’t really matter what kind of food you have, it’s just important to have the actual light meal itself and not to feel hungry.”

It’s about the strength of the drinks, pure and simple

Another myth that our dietitian was quick to bust is the adage that certain types of alcohol will make drinkers feel worse in the morning. It’s actually all to do with alcohol strengths, as well as the fluid content of your chosen drink, Dr Schenker says.

As common sense suggests, opting for beverages with a lower percentage and a high volume of fluid (such as a weak beer) is the most sensible decision.

Be vigilant if you want to avoid a hangover

The government’s current recommended alcohol intake guidelines condone no more than 14 units of alcohol per person, per week on a regular basis.

“If you are going to drink more than is recommended – then the thing to remember is to keep track of how much you’re having,” Dr Schenker advises.

“Try not to let people just keep topping you up, because then you’ll think: ‘Oh, I’ve only had two glasses of wine!’ and you’ve actually had three quarters of a bottle.”

Hydration is the only cure

Since there’s no real way of totally preventing a hangover, it’s more than likely that you’re going to wake up feeling rough now and again after a drinking session. The key here is to accept that there’s no better hangover cure than good old H2O.

Sports drinks can be beneficial for fast re-hydration, due to their levels of salts and glucose, but plain water will do the trick just as well, according to Dr Schenker.

“The most important thing is just to get plenty of water into you, and probably some fresh air. Eat a decent breakfast – maybe something like a bowl of porridge. And then resolve not to do it again.”

Alcohol intake recommendations sourced from drinkaware.co.uk and alcoholresearchuk.org

For more tips from Dr Sarah Schenker, visit www.sarahschenker.co.uk