Hangover fact or fiction?
Drinkaware’s independent Medical Advisory Panel Chair Dr Fiona Sim answers some common questions and myths about hangovers.
There have been hangover remedies for a lot longer than you might think. Did you know that in England during the Middle Ages, raw eel with some ground bitter almonds was prescribed to cure a hangover? We’ve learned a lot since then. Thank goodness.
But hangover myths persist, even today.
With one in five people saying they typically suffer more hangovers over the festive period than usual, Dr Sim helpfully separates the fact from fiction.
Will ‘hair of the dog’ help cure a hangover?
“‘Hair of the dog’ is a myth. Drinking more alcohol will simply 'top up' your blood alcohol level, so extending the time you have alcohol on board, and you'll still get a bad hangover if you are prone to them. And routine ‘hair of the dog’ drinking can lead to increased tolerance of alcohol and drinking more each time, which risks becoming alcohol dependent. The only hangover cure is prevention, either through drinking moderately – less than six units in a session, or not at all. And don't forget that just one large glass of wine (250ml) typically contains more than three units of alcohol.”
Do ‘dark’ drinks make a hangover worse?
“There is no evidence that particular types of alcoholic drinks cause worse hangovers. But if you find that certain drinks give you a worse hangover than others, that is possible, and so it is worth avoiding that drink to reduce the chance of a bad hangover.
“Drinking plenty of water will help to reduce the risk of dehydration, which is the biggest single factor in causing the symptoms of a hangover.
“Alcoholic drinks contain substances called congeners, which have been associated with worse hangovers, but the evidence is not yet clear or fully understood. There also seem to be genetic factors involved in which drinks cause different people to have worse hangovers, but again these are not yet fully understood.”
Will drinking cheap wine will give me a bigger headache?
“Cheaper alcohol may not necessarily be linked to worse hangovers, but different people react differently to alcohol, so if cheaper drinks affect you that way, they’re best avoided if you want to avoid that bad hangover.
“Red wine generally contains more congeners than white, which have been associated with hangovers, so it is possible that drinking red wine might be more likely to result in a bad hangover, but congeners are only one factor in getting a hangover.
“Most importantly, avoid getting dehydrated. The price of the wine is not a factor in itself, but if you drink more because it is less expensive, you will increase your chance of a bad hangover.”
Don’t bubbles and carbonated mixers contribute to bad hangovers?
“Diluting your alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks is a good idea. You are less likely to become dehydrated and you may drink less alcohol if you dilute it, or alternate it with alcohol-free drinks or water. The bubbles themselves are unlikely to be a factor in how severe a hangover is.
“Some people find carbonated water or soft drinks help to settle their stomach, so drinking these might be helpful the morning after.”
Do certain medications give you a worse hangover?
“If you are taking any medication, either prescribed by a doctor or purchased over the counter, do check before drinking any alcohol. Mixing alcohol with certain medications can be dangerous, risking much more harm to your health than a hangover.”
How about late night or early morning fast food?
“Eating a meal before you start drinking alcohol is sensible, so that the alcohol is not absorbed straight into your blood. Eating probably won't make your hangover worse, whether it is fast food or something healthier.”
“Drinking a cup of coffee the morning after, along with paracetamol for your symptoms, is sensible and won't make your hangover worse. But if you drink a large amount of very strong coffee, you'll be getting a large dose of caffeine, which may cause symptoms such as a fast heart rate or palpitations. These aren’t to do with your hangover but will feel unpleasant and could be dangerous if you have a serious underlying heart condition.”
Will sweating out a hangover relieve the symptoms?
“You are even more likely to get severely dehydrated by sweating it out, so that could make your hangover worse. If you ensure you drink plenty of water to replace all that sweat and quite a bit more, then you might reduce the severity of the hangover. And don't forget that your judgment will probably still be impaired the morning after a heavy evening's drinking, so take extra care before doing any strenuous physical activity that could result in you having an accident, as well as making you sweat.”
There. No more fiction.
In reality, hangover symptoms vary from person to person. If you get a hangover, only time will help you sober up.
Avoid a hangover by:
- Drinking water or soft drinks between alcoholic drinks to help avoid dehydration.
- Stopping drinking well before the end of the evening, so the process to break down alcohol can begin before you go to bed. Depending on your weight and other factors, it takes about an hour for a healthy liver to process one unit of alcohol. If you really need it, take a painkiller, paracetamol, and an antacid might help settle your stomach.
- Avoid drinking on an empty stomach. Food helps slow down the rate that your body absorbs alcohol.
- Sticking to the UK Chief Medical Officers' low risk drinking guidelines of no more than 14 units a week (that’s about six medium glasses of wine or six pints of beer over a whole week) and spreading the units out over a few days, with several drink-free days included.
If you do wake up with a hangover the next morning, drink plenty of water. You could also add a rehydration treatment sachet to water – they replace lost minerals and salt, but plain water or a carbonated soft drink will normally do.
And don't forget, if you wake up with a hangover, you'll almost certainly have alcohol in your system, so don't be tempted to drive.
The Drinkaware Drinking Check is an online self-assessment that can help identify whether your drinking is harmful to your health. Drinkaware also has a free app, which can help you track your drinking.