Can you beat the hangover- what does science say?


The headache, nausea, sweats, tiredness, that amorphous sense of guilt.....

From a scientific point of view, the onset of a hangover means your blood’s concentration of ethanol – the alcohol we appreciate for its intoxicating qualities – is fast approaching zero.

That is the paradox mystery of the hangover.

Even science isn’t sure what exactly causes one.

Your hangover symptoms may be directly or indirectly related to alcohol. 

The fatigue for example, could be due to the lack of sleep (busting too many moves on the dance floor?) Or alcohol's impact on sleep quality; it destroys REM sleep – the one that rejuvenates the body.

The dehydration & pounding head? 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 and the severity of the hangover.

How much I drank?

Not necessarily. Analysis of urine of hung-over participants show ethanol concentrations may or may not be correlated with severity of symptoms like nausea, sleepiness and sweating.

This suggests that the ability to rapidly metabolise alcohol is more important than the amount consumed in determining hangover severity. Although some practice diligently, there is no known way to acquire such a skill.

What I drank?

Possibly. Acetaldehyde, a highly reactive by-product of ethanol, appears to be low when a hangover is most severe. This suggests the culprit might be further down the metabolic line, perhaps acetate, a product of acetaldehyde breakdown. Various studies have looked into the role of “congeners” – chemicals produced during fermentation, dark spirits and beers maybe worse than lighter coloured choices when it comes to elevated acetate production after a night on the tiles.

How I drank it?

If we are talking rate or speed of consumption, this is where the research behind the hangover becomes equivocal at best, flimsy even. Most studies on hangovers are conducted on university students, a ready-made pool of enthusiastic guinea pigs who exhibit all the perfect attributes for this area of research.

What about the 3am kebab?

Could the one thing you sought to ease the symptoms, be a contributor? Alcohol consumption does alter the ratio and production of ghrelin and leptin - gut hormones that influence appetite and trigger cravings for the consumption of salty, fatty foods. Some research shows the consumption of unaccustomed foods close to alcohol consumption can exacerbate the severity of symptoms. (And no, that is not a green light for increasing kebab consumption).

Getting too old for this sort of thing?

Probably. We know that with every passing decade adults will lose 2-5kg of muscle and replace this with 3-6kgs of body fat. Epidemiological studies suggest habitual alcohol consumption speeds up this unwanted change in body composition.

We also know that just a few drinks kills the anabolic and fat oxidation responses of exercise. Yeah, you’ve blown your muscle building, fat burning workout efforts for the week but the kebab was so worth it…

However, there has not yet been a study with a statistically large enough sample to say whether hangover symptoms and severity change with age.


Interestingly, researchers suggest other factors, such as sleep and eating patterns, are significant in contributing to perceived hangover severity than a heightened sensitivity to alcohol.

Can I beat it?

Unfortunately, no nutrient – macro or micro, has been shown clearly to speed the elimination of a hangover.

Caffeine? Will just make you a wide awake drunk (and no body wants that.)

Until we understand the pathology of a hangover, we’re unlikely to find a cure.

Your regular meal plan, drinking non-alcoholic fluids, and reducing the amount of alcohol consumed, all seem unfashionably logical - so does getting enough sleep. A hangover might be nature’s way of telling you not to do it again. Being human naturally, we tend to do the exact opposite.

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Recommended reading: Living & Training with Alcohol

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