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How to cure a hangover

Jonathan Goodall / 02 December 2014 ( 14 July 2020 )

How to prevent a hangover, plus top tips for curing one.

English fry up breakfast
Protein and carbohydrates combat low blood sugar, so a hefty fry-up makes perfect sense, providing you can keep it down.

Back in my student days a hangover was dismissed as ‘feeling a bit shabby’. Nowadays, if I’m foolish enough to incur the wrath of a hangover, I wake to a cacophony of demons drilling rivets into my brain, an oil slick in my stomach and a tongue like Gandhi’s flip-flop.

What I wouldn’t give for a little shabbiness. So I was surprised by the reams of misleading press coverage given to a University of Southern Denmark study claiming that hangovers get less ghastly with age.

Most of these journalists failed to mention that the survey’s findings hinged on its definition of binge drinking as ‘five drinks or more’. To paraphrase, the study conceded that mature drinkers are less likely to hit the Jägerbombs after eight pints of lager with whisky chasers, and are more inclined to call it a night after five glasses of Chablis with a nice bit of fish. But this won’t sell newspapers.

Why hangovers get worse as you get older

As we age, both our lean body mass (muscle) and water content decrease, meaning a higher blood-alcohol concentration from the same amount of alcohol consumed, as well as a reduced capacity to process it. In layman’s terms, it means you are more likely to require sunglasses when opening the fridge door.

Perhaps we can take some solace from another report that claims we are more likely to experience our worst hangovers around the age of 30, when our alcoholic aspirations and our ability to deal with them are most out of kilter. Despite almost all of us claiming to have the perfect personal remedy, there is, sadly, no known ‘cure’ for a hangover other than abstinence, and where’s the fun in that?

Totting up the units of alcohol in your drink

Guidelines issued in January 2016 recommend that men should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week, the same level as for women, and everyone should abstain for two or three days a week. What’s surprising is just how quickly units can add up in a social situation.

  • 2 small (125ml) glasses of champagne = 3 units
  • 2 pints of ‘premium’ lager =  5.7 units
  • 3 single G&Ts = 3 units
  • 3 pints of Guinness = 6.8 units
  • 2 large (250ml) glasses of 13%ABV Rioja = 6.5 units
  • 1 standard (175ml)  glass of cava = 2 units
  • 2 pints of 4%ABV ‘cooking bitter’ in the pub = 4.5 units
  • 1 alcopop = 1.4 units

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How to prevent a hangover

Alcohol is absorbed via the stomach into the bloodstream, which is why we feel woozy more quickly on an empty stomach; and we’re also likely to drink faster when we haven’t eaten. Milk lines the stomach, while foods such as bread, pasta and potatoes are particularly good at soaking up the booze.

A healthy liver can process about one unit of alcohol per hour, so give the poor thing a chance. Try putting your drink down occasionally, and remember that fizzy drinks are absorbed more quickly.

To soften the hangover blow, try to alternate alcohol with soft drinks. Alcohol is a diuretic, so it’s sensible to replace lost fluid as you go while providing the fluid to flush the alcohol, which is a poison, through your system.

And, if you remember, drink at least a pint of water before going to bed, possibly with an Alka-Seltzer. Hangover headaches are caused by the lining of the brain shrinking through dehydration, pulling the brain away from the skull to which the lining is attached – sort of cranial bungee-jumping.

Mixing your drinks and hangovers

It’s a myth that mixing your drinks gets you more drunk, but it will crank up the hangover. This is because you’ll be consuming more congeners (these are the substances that give booze its colour), which are huge contributors to hangover hell.

The Alcohol Hangover Research Group ranks drinks in escalating order of colour and hangover severity as follows. Note that wine is higher up the scale than some spirits:

  1. beer (which, although coloured, is about 96% water)

  2. vodka

  3. gin

  4. white wine

  5. whisky

  6. rum

  7. red wine

  8. brandy

Your guide to alcohol units and strengths

Fry-ups and hangovers

Alcohol also stimulates our bodies to produce insulin, which reduces sugar in the blood (hypoglycaemia), causing trembling, nausea and hunger. Protein and carbohydrates combat low blood sugar, so a hefty fry-up makes perfect sense, providing you can keep it down. Also, bananas are a good source of potassium, one of the minerals most depleted by dehydration.

Can fizzy drinks like Irn Bru cure hangovers?

It is thought that sugary fizzy soft drinks could be more effective than water as they offset the effects of low blood sugar, which might explain the popularity of Irn Bru in Scotland. Sprite made headlines when Chinese scientists found it to be the most effective drink (out of 57 tested) at boosting the enzymes that break down alcohol. I find that ice cream for sugar replacement and blustery cliff-top walks for head-clearing blasts of ozone work best.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.