As healthy as I try to be, I occasionally go out on weekends and party. One of my friends takes a drugstore hangover remedy before we drink, and panics if he runs out. Are these safe and, more importantly, do they actually work?
Hangovers, it seems, are nature's way to find an audience for The Price is Right. In return for your zombie-like stare into the TV, the show has actual therapeutic power. First, no matter how sick you feel, you know you could spin the wheel harder than Joan from Grand Rapids. And second, you might discover that Rice-a-Roni is the one food you could keep down.
Headache, nausea, dizziness and the feeling that a cat slept in your mouth are not caused by the alcohol itself, but by its breakdown. As your liver splits apart the ethanol molecule, the first product made is something called acetaldehyde, a natural substance, but one that is most responsible for hangover symptoms. Eventually, this is further broken down to (roughly) vinegar, but not before using up the majority of B and C vitamins and quite a lot of your body's water. This combination of dehydration, vitamin depletion and acetaldehyde makes you beg for an upgrade to the stomach flu.
Over the centuries, cultures around the globe have come up with interesting cures for the morning after. I've read of a 16th-century English treatment that involved grinding a paste of raw eels and almonds and eating it with chunks of bread, and another Welsh remedy recommending a breakfast of roasted pig lung. In our own country, cowboys were said to have eased their pain with a tea made from rabbit feces. Chances are, these were simply early pilot episodes of Fear Factor, and not really intended as therapy.
The new, over-the-counter hangover prevention products fall into two basic categories. One type claims to absorb the by-products of alcohol manufacture, called congeners. These by-products are, indeed, implicated in causing symptoms, but they also give distilled spirits their flavor, color and aroma. The second type assert that their formula speeds up the conversion of acetaldehyde to vinegar, so there's less time for that nasty chemical to work its evil deed. Ingredients vary, but most contain different combinations of activated charcoal, amino acids, antacid, vitamins and in some cases, aspirin.
These ingredients are generally safe at the recommended dosages, and they might actually work as advertised (yeah, I didn't see that one coming either). Ignoring the unpublished clinically proven trials cited by some companies, the general consensus of reporters and others who have tried these preventatives is that they can be somewhat effective. They are expensive, though, costing about $2 a dose, but that is substantially cheaper than fresh eel almond paste.
Healthier advice than using these products is to drink in moderation. However, if you are planning a special stop at the drugstore to buy hangover medicine, you've already decided to ignore that suggestion. So, if you choose to overindulge, at least follow this guidance: Arrange for safe transportation, stock up on fruit juices and sports drinks, take a multi-vitamin and drink much slower than you usually do. Collecting rabbit droppings for tea is the only thing I'll recommend as optional.
Clear your schedule the following day so you can rest on the couch, re-hydrate and watch Bob Barker. You'll probably have to keep the volume low when they shout "Come on down," but it's a small consolation to know that when he asks for the price of hangover pills, you'll be ready.