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The Good Fight: Four Ways to Cure a Head-Pounding Hangover

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

No matter how a hangover affects you the morning after, one thing is for sure—it’s not something you want to experience again soon. Funny thing is, that horrible nail-in-the-temple, flighty-stomach, wearing-a-hat-five-sizes-too-small-for-your-head feeling doesn’t seem to eternally deter people from overindulging. We’re only human, after all, and we like to go back for more. 

  Simply put, a raging hangover is your body’s desperate plea to not go there again. When your blood alcohol nears zero, a collection of unpleasant symptoms begin to reveal themselves as the alcohol takes effect on your body’s systems. Because alcohol is a diuretic, you may suffer dehydration and an electrolyte imbalance as a result. Add to that your body’s response to the toxic byproducts created from the alcohol breaking down. And to top it all off, since alcohol disturbs sleep patterns, you don’t get a solid night’s rest, which means you’re practically guaranteed to wake up feeling lousy—even if you didn’t drink that  much.   

The Truth about the Hair of the Dog and other Urban Remedies There are plenty of hangover remedies that have been passed on—and you’ve probably tried a few. Some of the most popular actually have some merit, but also have drawbacks; some folk remedies just don’t work at all. For example, while drinking strong coffee can help shake the cobwebs and clear the fog, it can add to your problems, since caffeine’s also a diuretic. And the old “hair of the dog” remedy—drinking more alcohol to ease your hangover—might help temporarily, but it comes at a price. Scientists who believe that a hangover is a form of short-term withdrawal theorize that more alcohol can help ease some of the symptoms you feel. However, adding more alcohol only perpetuates the state you’re in, and your body systems don’t have a chance to recover. And the post-party trip to the all-night greasy spoon remedy? That one just doesn’t work at all, since, despite what bar legend may say, you can’t coat the stomach to prevent alcohol absorption.

Even worse, not only is that hangover remedy not effective, it can do real damage to your body. A recent study from the University of Buffalo found that people who eat a high fat breakfast flood their body with inflammatory components. So if you enjoy a big plate of greasy hash every weekend, you’ll keep your vessels in a constant state off inflammation—which can lead to the development of atherosclerosis later.  

The best way to get over a hangover is to put yourself back on the road to health—not send yourself sliding further down an unhealthy path. After all, those drinks that led to the hangover have already added hundreds of nutrient-free empty calories to your day. Why do more damage? 

Four Ways to Fight Your Hangover
It’s only fair that the bulk of research dollars go toward finding a cure for real diseases—not hangovers—but that means that there’s not much reliable science about good foods to eat to prevent a hangover. However, it doesn’t take a PhD to know what to do to prevent one (don’t overdo it). But if you find yourself groaning at the prospect of a hangover in the morning, try these simple, healthy, and tried and true solutions for your best chance at waking up pain-free. 

1.) Fuel up Before You Go Out
You’ve probably heard it before—but it’s still good advice. Eating before you start drinking can help blunt the way alcohol affects you; it reduces how much is absorbed directly into your bloodstream via the lining of your stomach. Plus, eating something slows the rate your stomach empties into your small intestine, where alcohol absorption happens at a faster rate. But for nutrition’s sake, make sure it’s balanced (a little lean protein, whole grain carbohydrate and heart healthy fat)—not a plateful of sliders from the appetizer menu. And along with eating, drinking (water that is) is key, too.  Make sure you go into the evening fully hydrated. 

2.) Juice (after the) Bar
You can head off some of the dehydration symptoms from over-imbibing by drinking a tall glass of water before you head to bed. Even better, try juice, which can help replace some of the lost electrolytes. But since juice can irritate an already irritated stomach, diluting it with water makes a healthy hangover-preventing cocktail. And a big plus—the sugar in juice (fructose)—may help your body break down the alcohol.    

3.) Grab a Snack
Because drinking lowers blood sugar levels, a little something to light to nibble on after you’ve left the bar will help. Treat your body like it’s getting over a sickness (in theory, it is). Try some toast with honey (bonus! fructose), a handful of pretzels and glass of diluted juice (helps replace lost salts and electrolytes), or crackers with an apple and peanut butter—foods you might eat when you’re not feeling your best. And though there are no real one-food cures for a hangover, a banana may be the closest thing to it, since it’s packed with electrolytes, and contains a good dose of fructose.   

4.) Don't Believe the Hype
Beware of supplements and medications (for example, B-vitamin supplements) on the market that have hangover cure claims—it’s not clear which ones are completely effective or safe. The B-vitamin remedy, for example, sounds promising, but it’s based on a small study done over 30 years ago—and there has not been follow up research since. It’s best to stick to a few simple foods, lots of water and a little extra rest to safely speed you back up to normal. And it goes without saying, but frequent drinking to the point of a hangover doesn’t only leave you your body reeling to recover, but it also adds hundreds of unnecessary calories that can translate into pounds if you’re not careful.   

Finally, consider this: while a hangover is bad enough, if you’re a serious athlete, alcohol can make a mess of your performance. A dehydrated, sleep-deprived athlete with an electrolyte imbalance and a body packed with toxins is going to experience setbacks not just the morning after, but even days later. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine reports that muscular endurance is decreased even two days after intoxication—and nutritionists at the University of California at San Diego warn that alcohol can be responsible for delays in reaction time as well as decreased mental acuity days after drinking, too.