Monday 19 February 2018

The science of a sore head: Does anything really work for a festive hangover?

There's no miracle cure to feeling rough after a night on the sauce, but Chrissie Russell reveals some possible remedies

Cure: Eggs, oats and broccoli could have helped the guys from ‘The Hangover’... or not
Cure: Eggs, oats and broccoli could have helped the guys from ‘The Hangover’... or not

Chrissie Russell

From 12 pubs of Christmas crawls and workplace revelry to New Year's knees-ups or starting St Stephen's Day with a sherry, there's something about the season that encourages boozy festive excess. It seems Cliff Richard was right, you just can't have mistletoe without wine.

But it's no fun when the merriment of Christmas drinks turns into the misery of a hangover the following day. It's as inevitable as a re-run of Home Alone that a huge number of us will spend at least one day suffering from a fuzzy head and churning tummy after one too many mulled wines.

So what can be done?

Inevitably, as all experts will tell you, prevention is better than cure. The best way to swerve a hangover is not to over-indulge in the first place. Unfortunately, when it comes to booze, our brains just aren't wired that way. Ever wondered why you might guzzle six pints of beer on a night out but wouldn't dream of downing the same volume in milk? The answer lies on the affect alcohol has on the balance of chemicals in the brain. Alcohol slows down our decision-making neurotransmitter and increases both the inhibitory neurotransmitter and the happy hormone, making us fuzzy headed and fancy free. Quite simply: when the drink's in, the wit's out.

So that's maybe why we get drunk, but when we've felt so great the night before, why do so many of us suffer for it in the morning?

Here's the science bit: when you drink alcohol, the body has to metabolize it. A product of this process is the catchily-named toxic compound, acetaldehyde (try saying that after a few eggnogs).

Normally the body would produce another substance (glutathione) to break it down, but when you're drinking, the liver's stores of glutathione quickly run out allowing the acetaldehyde to build up.

Estimated to be between 10 and 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself, some researchers reckon acetaldehyde plays a big role in hangover symptoms like nausea.

"There is evidence to suggest acetaldehyde plays some role," says Professor Bill Tormey, a consultant chemical pathologist at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. When Antabuse is given to people suffering from alcoholism it causes a build up of acetaldehyde, causing extreme nausea when alcohol is consumed.

"That's one indicator that acetaldehyde is involved in hangovers," says Professor Tormey. Good news though, there's some evidence that food might help. The amino acid, cysteine, breaks down acetaldehyde and can be found in eggs, oats, yogurt, broccoli, red peppers and (appropriately enough for the season) the Brussels sprout.

"Ditch the fry," urges nutritional consultant Elsa Jones ( "Cooked fats the morning after are difficult to digest and hard on the liver. The body does not need additional work whilst it's trying to heal itself."

Instead she recommends porridge and bananas containing "crucial B vitamins which help reduce the stress your body is under" and helping restore lost potassium. Eggs on wholegrain toast or a fruit smoothie will also give you a cysteine hit. But she's keen to repeat the message "there's no miracle cure", no amount of eggs will make you invincible to a night of tequila.

Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning it suppresses the kidney's natural function of absorbing water back in the body, flushing it out instead (hence why you're always in the loo after a few). The result is that after a big night you could be suffering from dehydration and that has one major symptom.

"Headaches, even ones not associated with drinking, are often simply down to dehydration," explains Dr Orla Crosbie, Consultant Hepatologist at Cork University Hospital and member of the Policy Group on Alcohol at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. "The healthiest way to help alleviate it is to drink more water."

As well as losing water, there's some studies that suggest the diuretic effect of alcohol may also strip the body's reserves of vitamins, nutrients and electrolytes, causing fatigue, nausea and headaches. "Adding lemon, salt and honey to water helps replace the sodium and glycogen lost the night before," says Elsa Jones.

Maybe you swear by Berocca, Fanta or Lucozade, but according to Dr Crosbie there's a simple reason for this. "You can't get away from the fact that you're going to have low blood sugar the following day," she explains. "All those remedies are aimed at increasing blood sugar and give you a pick-me-up."

But Professor Tormey isn't convinced that acetaldehyde or dehydration holds the whole answer. "It's difficult because there hasn't actually been a lot of research into hangovers - probably because the cure is simple: don't drink. But there seems to be multiple symptoms, some gastritis some to do with prostaglandins (hormones controlling blood flow and inflammation). The acetaldehyde tends to move on pretty fast, so it can't all be down to that."

He reckons a big factor is congeners. Different drinks contain different levels of congeners - by-products of the fermentation process. Some drinks, like bourbon and brandy have higher levels compared to vodka or gin - resulting in a worse hangover.

Get the eggs in, leave out the coffee


Yes, the cysteine will help with breaking down toxins.

Hair of the dog

No, more booze just dulls your senses and delays the inevitable.


Yes, your brain needs hydration - drink up!


Possibly, they can reduce inflammation, but be wary of over-working the liver.


No, it's a diuretic just like alcohol and won't help your body or brain rehydrate sufficiently.

Milk thistle

Yes, boffins reckon the herb's ingredient, silymarin, can help the liver recover.


Yes, but heavy, boozy sleep is not restorative, so you will need plenty more shut-eye to get to the REM good stuff in order to feel more human.

Irish Independent

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