Hangover helper: The lowdown on feeling low, down

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2013 - 1:52 PM

On Wednesday, as we awaken to a new year, one mumbled vow will be heard in countless households: “Never again.”

To paraphrase the holiday ditty, it’s the most hungover time of the year. If it weren’t a national holiday, New Year’s Day would likely eclipse the day after the Super Bowl for the dubious title of most people calling in sick at work.

Hangovers aren’t limited to the holidays. More than 15 percent of Americans have a hangover at least once a month, according to the Annals of Internal Medicine, and hangover-related absenteeism and poor performance have an estimated annual cost of $148 million. Nor are they new. Accounts go back to biblical times (“Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink” — Isaiah 5:11).

But there’s more folklore than fact about this day-after malaise. Instead of leaving you to pithy slogans (“Beer before liquor, never sicker; liquor before beer, never fear”), we took a run through the recent research to help you sort hangover myth from reality. 

Myth: You won’t get a hangover if you don’t get drunk.

Reality: Actually, many subjects in a Danish research project suffered hangover symptoms (headaches, exhaustion, dizziness, dry mouth, nausea) even if they never reached the DWI benchmark of 0.08 blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) the night before. However, a Canadian experiment found that higher BACs tend to increase the likelihood of getting a hangover.

Myth: It’s the alcohol that gets ya.

Reality: There’s truth to that, but the likelihood and degree of a hangover often are determined by the content of alternate alcohol forms called congeners, according to several studies. Drinks with high congener content (tequila, whiskey and brandy) contain more methanol, while those with low content (vodka and gin) contain more pure ethanol. Ethanol is not as toxic as methanol, and it breaks down more quickly.

Congeners have much more to do with hangover likelihood and severity than all the old urban legends about mixing types of alcoholic beverage (“Beer before wine, all is fine, wine before beer, always fear”).

Myth: Anyone who drinks heavily will get a hangover.

Reality: Extensive tests indicate that about 23 percent of the population never suffers from hangover symptoms. And many alcoholics seem to develop immunity: One study found that 50 percent of people who are addicted to alcohol hadn’t suffered a hangover in the previous year. 

Myth: Gender and ethnicity don’t play a role in hangovers.

Reality: Some East Asians have genetic differences in their ability to metabolize alcohol (the so-called “Asian flush”) that make them much more likely to suffer hangovers. Recent research indicates that they might not be alone. “There is other less well-established data that suggest that the same may be true in other ethnicities,” said John McGeary, a research psychologist at Brown University.

Dr. Jason Burke, who has treated more than 10,000 people at Las Vegas’ Hangover Heaven clinic, has noticed marked gender differences in symptoms as well. “Women tend to get much more nausea than men,” he said. “Women can have terrible, vacation-ending nausea, but no headache. On the other side of the coin, men tend to get severe headaches and little nausea.”

Overall, genetic differences are believed to be a key element in hangover experiences, and are a major focus in current research.

Myth: Having a hangover is a good deterrent to drinking to excess in the future.

Reality: That whole “never again” feeling generally is fleeting. Several studies have shown that people do not alter drinking patterns despite having hangovers.

Myth: It’s all about dehydration.

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