On The Rocks

Tomorrow, if you feel like your body has crashed, here's what happened: a hangover.

Health & Science

December 31, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Marcus Harrison drank so much cognac at a Memorial Day party a few years ago that when he tried to go to sleep, his bed started spinning. So he slept on the floor - and wasn't surprised when he felt terrible the next morning.

"I had a whole-day hangover," said Harrison, 38, a guest services employee at a Baltimore hotel.

Although he describes himself as only an occasional drinker, he has a preferred remedy for hangovers: one or two 10-ounce glasses of grapefruit or orange juice. He also quaffs Gatorade or some other sports drink, if he can find it.

"Always avoid coffee. Avoid anything with caffeine. It always dries you out," he says.

Good advice, it turns out. About two-thirds of us in the United States consume alcohol in some form, and with the New Year approaching tonight, some of us will do it to excess. As a result, millions will ring in 2005 tomorrow with personal remedies to treat the nausea, headache and upset stomach that inevitably follow.

"My cure is straight water and plenty of it, and drink it the night before, if you think of it, to dilute the impurities in the alcohol," advises Harrison's buddy, Michael Jackson, 32, who joined a discussion at the Midtown Yacht Club on a recent afternoon.

When he drinks, Jackson says, he sticks to beer because it minimizes the potential for a painful morning-after.

The basic cause of a hangover is well known: too much alcohol, consumed too quickly, drains the body of fluids.

"What a hangover is, primarily, is dehydration," said Siegfried Streufert, a psychologist at the State University of New York's Upstate Medical University in Syracuse and an expert on alcohol's effects.

An effective, over-the-counter cure remains elusive. And experts say the only reliable home remedy is the one that has worked since the dawn of fermentation - rest and gradual rehydration.

Quick cures are hard to find because the mechanisms that trigger hangover symptoms - from nausea to that incessant, pounding headache - remain a mystery. "The overall cause is too much alcohol, but other than that, nobody really knows what causes a hangover," said Dena Davidson, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

The lack of a sure hangover cure may not be such a bad thing. Some health experts view hangovers as nature's way of limiting alcohol consumption. "If we did have a cure, you'd see a whole lot more drinking, and that would mean more of the problems that go with it," said Linda C. Degutis, a researcher and public health expert at Yale University.

The medical term for a hangover is "veisalgia," a compound name taken from the Norwegian word kveis, meaning uneasiness after debauchery, and the Greek word algia, for pain.

Alcohol itself is a poison absorbed in the stomach and broken down by the liver. In the body, most of it enters the bloodstream directly, where it dilates blood vessels and depresses the nervous system, giving revelers a brief high or euphoria.

But as the alcohol wears off, its effects are all too familiar. They include:

Fatigue. The brain becomes more alert as the depressant effects of alcohol fade. That often means waking up in the middle of the night, or not getting enough of the precious, deep-level REM sleep the body needs.

"It's as if the brain is waking up and trying to shake off the effects of the alcohol," said Degutis. "That's why people will be tired the whole next day."

Dehydration. Because alcohol is a diuretic, the body tends to lose a lot of water. If you have four drinks, you will urinate up to a quart of water over the next several hours, according to a 1998 study Davidson co-authored.

Drinking plenty of water before bed can prevent some dehydration and wash some of the alcohol out of the brain. Davidson recommends taking water between alcoholic drinks to rehydrate and reduce the desire for more alcohol.

Stomach ache. Alcohol produces a buildup of acids, causing inflammation of the stomach lining and delaying the digestion of foods in the stomach. Eating food before or while drinking allows alcohol to be absorbed more slowly and reduces the pain from an upset stomach. Antacid tablets the next day also can help.

Headache. Alcohol's precise chemical effect on the brain remains a mystery, but it is known to affect neurotransmitters and hormones that act on the brain in ways that trigger headaches. Some drinks, such as red wine, somehow increase serotonin and histamine levels in the brain, which also trigger headaches.

Aspirin, ibuprofen or other pain relievers may help headaches, but they also can upset and damage a stomach already sensitized by too much alcohol.

The severity of a hangover depends on how much one drinks and how fast. Generally, the human body can process 1.5 ounces of alcohol an hour, whether it's in the form of a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a mixed drink with 1.5 ounces of 80-proof whiskey.

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