College is a school of life. You go there not only to study Euripides or string theory. You go there to explore, experiment, and learn living independently. Some experiments will be more fun than others. For example, that chugging contest? Fun! The morning after that – no so much. I, too, had my share of mornings when I thought I died and went to a bad place for my sins. Mighty many sins, it seemed, judging by the pounding headache I had to endure while I used to write my essays sucking on mint drops to fight back nausea.
Dealing with a hangover is one of the skills you will learn the hard way, but it's something you will need. Not that I encourage you or anything, but some studies show that our organism's capacity to process alcohol and deal with poisoning declines with age, so… Maybe you don't need these tips today. Still, the forty-year-old you will definitely be grateful sometime in the future, so let's at least cover the survival basics.
How to Prevent Hangover
First thing's first. How to NOT find yourself in this sorry situation? Chalking off the most obvious but also most useless advice of abstinence, let's see what you can do to lessen the evil before it's too late.
Drinking alcohol will make you dehydrated, so be smart by making provisions for that. First of all, alcohol inhibits the release of vasopressin, a hormone that depresses the volume of urine produced by the kidneys. In English: it makes you pee more. Ever wondered why the queue to the toilet is long at parties? That's why. Also, intoxication often leads to vomiting, diarrhea, and excess sweating, worsening dehydration.
Alternating between a shot and a glass of water is a good rule of thumb. It will alleviate some hangover symptoms by keeping you properly hydrated. Yet it also will moderate your alcohol intake. I mean, it's harder to down a cocktail after cocktail when your stomach is half-full of water. As I said: smart.
Don't cross over to the dark side
Some studies show that lighter-colored drinks like gin, rum, and vodka cause less severe hangovers than darker-colored drinks like tequila, cognac, and whiskey (bourbon being the worst fiend of them all.) A quick disclaimer: most of the said studies were based on self-reported severity of the symptoms. After all, we haven't invented a way to objectively measure how bad one feels. Yet.
The explanation might have something to do with congeners – toxic chemical byproducts of ethanol fermentation. Although most alcoholic drinks contain them in small amounts, darker-colored drinks usually include higher concentrations. Congeners can slow down the breakdown of alcohol in your system and prolong the symptoms.
You probably are aware by now of magical "hangover foods" that can supposedly put you back on your feet after excessive drinking. However, did you know that the foods you eat prior to those excesses also matter? A study recently published in The Journal of Clinical Medicine has found that people who eat food rich in zinc and B-vitamins (nuts, eggs, dairy, seeds, and whole grains) report less severe hangover later. Interestingly, these are the same foods that contain L-cysteine – a type of amino acid that is also beneficial for reducing hangover symptoms.
Also, eating fatty foods slows the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream, thus preventing intoxication. And just as it is with drinking water, a full stomach helps you with moderation. So don't forget to eat at that party.
Your body can process just so much alcohol at a time. If you go over this limit, you are screwed. Period. The hangover will come down on you like a ton of bricks, and so will remorse. Have some compassion for your poor future self!
Two to three drinks is a golden medium, according to Cyndi Turner, addiction counselor and licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner. "Many people use alcohol as a social lubricant. About two drinks, or a blood alcohol concentration of 0.055, tends to increase feelings of relaxation and reduce shyness, but more than three drinks can begin to impair balance, speech, thinking, reasoning, and judgment," she says.
Set the limit before you start drinking, and stick to it. Pair up with a friend, so you can look out for each other and hold each other accountable. Start slow and allow that first drink to really kick in before you go on to the next one. Allow for some lag time. I know that you feel invincible, but you are not.
How to Deal with Hangover
Your friends will probably supply you with dozens of home remedies supposed to work wonders for hangovers – from downing pickle juice the morning after to rubbing lemon to your armpits the evening before. However, I will stick to tips backed up by science. All the magical hangover fixes deserve their own folkloric study, but that's a story for another day.
Try to get some sleep
First of all, let's face one disappointing truth: the best hangover cure is time. Sleeping at least 7 hours after a wild overindulgent party has been linked to less severe hangovers in college students. That's not only because your body needs time to metabolize all the alcohol you put in it. Drinking also interferes with your sleeping patterns and sort of scrambles your brains. So it feels like sleep deprivation, jet lag, and poisoning – all at the price of one.
That's why the best thing you can do is pull down the blinds, tell your roommate to cheese off (or say you're indisposed if you want to be posh) and try to get some shuteye. "Yeah, but what if I have classes to go to?" Oh-oh. On a school night? You didn't! That's what I've been talking about when I said about compassion. Don't do this to yourself – at least next time.
Okay, if you have classes that you absolutely cannot skip, you must first get yourself in order. No matter how difficult it is – get yourself into the shower, freshen up, and don't forget to brush your teeth. Deodorant and tic-tac's won't help if you are going to join your peers in a packed classroom. You probably still should do this for an online lecture too. Believe me, this will make you feel better.
If you usually start your morning with a cup of joe or tea – that's also a good idea. Not that coffee in itself is an antidote to intoxication, but it can help with that grogginess. A bit of stimulation won't go amiss when you are tired and sleep-deprived. However, make sure you don't drink coffee on an empty stomach – that can worsen your nausea.
Refill your water bottle (not the glass)
Everything I said about drinking water still applies – you will need plenty of fluids. Due to nausea, you probably won't be able to drink a lot, so just make sure you get a few sips now and then. Restoring your electrolyte balance is another good idea. For that, go for a sports drink, Pedialyte, mineral water, or that fabled pickle juice – whichever is within your reach.
"Hey, what about something stronger? Will a drink make me better?" According to conventional wisdom, more alcohol (or "hair of the dog that bit you") can relieve your suffering because the hangover is akin to withdrawal symptoms. However, Dr. Robert Swift, a specialist in addiction psychiatry and neuropsychopharmacology with 20+ years of experience, warns you against it: "The hair of the dog just perpetuates a cycle. It doesn't allow you to recover."
Have a breakfast
Again, one of the most notorious symptoms is nausea, so you might find the mere suggestion repulsive. However, bland foods like toast, crackers, oats, or chicken broth can actually settle your stomach. Moreover, since drinking lowers blood sugar levels, some of the symptoms (like headaches, dizziness, and fatigue) might disappear if you get some carbohydrates into your system. So yes, there is something to all the "hangover foods" belief.
Some swear by bacon, egg, and cheese. Others prefer orange juice and bananas. Yet others claim that nothing beats a bowl of miso. I say, "Whichever floats your boat." None of these are magical fixes, but if something feels appetizing at the moment, that probably is the best option.
Drink a glass of soda
Some prefer to nudge their sugar levels up with Sprite, Coke, Ginger Ale, or another soda. Apart from being packed with sugar, these drinks usually contain phosphoric acid – an ingredient that gives them their tartness. This compound is also often found in remedies for nausea. So I suppose one glass will do you good. It definitely helped me a couple of times.
Although most of the studies on these have been inconclusive or outdated, some evidence does back up the usefulness of certain supplements as hangover remedies. Namely, red ginseng, eleuthero, borage oil, prickly pear, and ginger. The last one can also be the reason why so many go for Ginger Ale to banish hangover, but taking a ginger supplement or adding some ginger to your tea should work just fine.
Take over-the-counter painkillers
First of all, pain relief might help your upset stomach and that overall achiness. Second, alcohol often triggers migraines, so many people think they suffer from a hangover, when in fact, it's a debilitating migraine. That's why taking some ibuprofen and other NSAIDs can help you. Be careful with aspirin, though – it can irritate your stomach even more. Also, steer clear of Tylenol (acetaminophen) – paired with alcohol that still might be hanging around in your system, it has toxic effects on the liver.
I sincerely hope that helps. However, it's worth remembering that the severity of your hangovers depends on many factors. Some of them are beyond your control, such as genetics. If your hangovers seem worse than those of your peers, including nausea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat or pounding heart, fatigue, severe headache, flushed face and neck, it's likely you have alcohol intolerance.
Some people have a variant in the gene that codes aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2), an enzyme our body uses to metabolize alcohol. This variant causes your body to produce less active ALDH2, leading to ALDH2 deficiency. That means your body cannot digest alcohol properly, hence alcohol intolerance. This gene variant is more common in people of Asian descent but can occur in anyone. Please, consult your doctor if you suspect you might be alcohol intolerant.
Have fun safely and take care!