Hangover: Getting to the root of pain

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Hangover: Getting to the root of pain
Crowd wears red hats in Times Square, huge electronic displays light the scene.

Photos of Times Square: Bill Larkin, and Hungover: Álvaro Canivell.
The night before: friendship, frivolity, froth in Times Square. Mouseover for the morning after

You survived Christmas. Next up: the annual guzzl-a-thon — New Year’s Eve. Will you start the new year with a massive hangover?

Hangovers are an aftershock of acute alcohol intoxication, meaning you get them while recovering from a serious bout of drinking. The symptoms, including headache, nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, lethargy, diarrhea and thirst, often strike people who are already wallowing in self-pity.

Physiology offers explanations: Alcohol causes dehydration. Liver enzymes convert ethanol to the more toxic acetaldehyde. Less glucose reaches the brain, adding to lethargy.

A preventable condition

Short of abstinence, there are ways to reduce hangover. Food, especially fats, slow alcohol absorption, if the food enters the stomach first. James Garbutt, a professor of psychiatry and alcoholism specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggests eating a meal before your first drink, and then nibbling through the evening.

Drinking a glass of water between each drink can also cut consumption.

The next morning, Garbutt advises treating the headache with ibuprofen (not aspirin or acetaminophen), and drinking water or a sports drink to restore fluids and electrolytes.
Beyond that, you are on your own: According to a 2005 review1: “No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover.”

Man wearing party hat and holding drink glass, his head resting on a table littered with bottles and party favors

Think this bloke’s head will be on fire when he wakes from his stupor?

The science of the hangover

Still, The Why Files did track down some cool hangover science:

A good teaching tool? Because that morning of misery is a built-in disincentive to drink, hangovers seldom attract research funding. But a recent survey2 of 303 college students chilled the notion that hangover is a good preventative like ice in a shot glass: “The students significantly overestimated the number of drinks it would take to vomit, have unwanted sexual experiences, experience hangovers, and black out in comparison with the actual self-reported number of drinks consumed the last time identical consequences were experienced.” If you tossed your cookies after five drinks, but thought you could absorb 10 next time, what have you learned?


Image shows distorted view of a road through goggles

Image from: Innocorp
Cops and health educators use these goggles to dissuade teens from drinking and driving.
breathalyzer being given to fly-headed man

You can’t detect a drunken fruitfly with a breathalyzer, but an inebriometer works just dandy.

Hangover scale: Filling a scientific gap, in 2007, researchers from Brown University3 crafted the “acute hangover scale” to measure the next-morning blues in American college students, recent graduates, and Swedish marine officers (all folks who know which way the bottle tilts). The researchers found that “Do you have a hangover?” was the best single question for identifying hangover, even better than questions about thirst and headache. Why bother? The new scale could help distinguish hangover from other addictive effects of alcohol, the authors explained.

Take the asparagus cure: In 2009, Korean scientists reported that components of asparagus can protect the liver against oxidative stress of alcohol. According to B.Y. Kim of Jeju National University, “These results provide evidence of how the biological functions of asparagus can help alleviate alcohol hangover and protect liver cells.” No word on whether asparagus has a drinking problem … and unfortunately, the leaves, not the shoots that we eat, offered the best protection.

Hangover is stupid! A large study4 from Scotland found that dumb kids — okay, 11-year-olds with a lower IQ — were more likely to have hangovers in middle age. So, you wonder? Because hangover is a good measure of binge drinking, “This finding may at least partially explain the link between early life IQ and adult risk of mortality ascribed to all causes, cardiovascular disease and, particularly, alcohol related morbidity,” the authors say.

Drunken fruitflies:

A recently discovered5 “hangover” gene in fruitflies increases their tolerance to alcohol (when measured, you can’t make this up, in the “inebriometer.”) Because alcohol tolerance is a risk factor for alcoholism, the gene may do something more than just cause headache. Do fruitflies feel queasy the morning after the night before?

The final word

If you drink, drink safe and drink smart. And never, ever overindulge and drive.

And happy New Year from The Why Files!


– David Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Interventions for preventing or treating alcohol hangover: systematic review of randomized controlled trials, Max H Pittle et al BMJ. 2005 December 24; 331(7531): 1515-1518. doi: 10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1515.
  2. Do We Learn from Our Mistakes? An Examination of the Impact of Negative Alcohol-Related Consequences on College Students’ Drinking Patterns and Perceptions, Kimberly Mallett et al, J Stud Alcohol. 2006 March; 67(2): 269-276.
  3. The Acute Hangover Scale: A New Measure of Immediate Hangover Symptoms, Damaris J. Rohsenow et al, Addict Behav. 2007 June; 32(6): 1314-1320. Published online 2006 November 13. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2006.10.001.
  4. Childhood IQ and life course socioeconomic position in relation to alcohol induced hangovers in adulthood: the Aberdeen children of the 1950s study, G David Batty et al, J Epidemiol Community Health. 2006 October; 60(10): 872-874.
  5. The hangover gene defines a stress pathway required for ethanol tolerance development, Henrike Scholz et al, Nature. 2005 August 11; 436(7052): 845-847. doi: 10.1038/nature03864.
  6. Hangover basics.
  7. What doesn’t work?
  8. Hangover cures around the world.
  9. A few too many.