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Wild night? Avoid morning misery with prof.’s advice

Thursday, April 10, 2008

This weekend, many students will take in more than just the sights and sounds of M.I.A’s and Lupe Fiasco’s performances, partying long after the musicians have left the stage. But as the sun rises on Wriston Quad, scattered with red plastic cups and crushed beer cans, many students will be searching for ways to fight a nasty hangover.

Every drinker has a favorite cure for hangovers, ranging from the reasonable-sounding – Brandon Cook ’08 suggested taking lots of vitamin C – to the more colorful.

“Two raw eggs in orange juice,” said Pablo Larios ’10. “It works.”

But these ideas and other folk cures may be more creative than effective.

“Everybody’s looking for hangover cures,” said Robert Swift, professor of psychiatry and human behavior, who studies the effects of alcohol. “If there was one that really worked, everyone would know about it.”

Swift said the science on hangovers is uncertain, but there may be ways to reduce the risk of that certain unpleasantness the morning after. He suggested drinking lots of water or mixed drinks instead of shots, drinking on a full stomach and avoiding caffeine and medications with acetaminophen, like Tylenol, which can damage one’s already-fragile liver. Drinking lighter alcohols like vodka and white wine can give a milder hangover than dark drinks like whiskey and red wine.

As for the aphorism, “Beer before liquor, never been sicker; liquor before beer, you’re in the clear,” Swift isn’t so sure. “I have heard it,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s been scientifically proven that that’s the case.”

Though no one definitively knows what causes hangovers, Swift presented several theories.

A hangover can be viewed as alcohol withdrawal, he said. Because alcohol is a sedative, the brain tries to compensate by becoming overexcited. When the sedative effects wear off, the brain is still in overdrive, causing one to feel irritable, achy and sensitive to light and noise.

“The person may feel actually somewhat sedated and fatigued,” he said, “but nevertheless their brain is actually overexcited.” Some people have another drink in the morning to dull this over-excitation, but Swift warned that this solution is only temporary, because the body has to process all the alcohol sooner or later.

Though ethanol is the primary alcohol found in beverages, Swift said another potential cause of hangovers are congeners, other types of alcohol found in many drinks. “All these other alcohols are more toxic to the human body than ethanol,” he said. One of the most sinister congeners, present in certain whiskeys, is methanol. In an effort to break it down, the body produces formaldehyde – “embalming fluid,” Swift said.

“Alcohol is relatively toxic stuff,” he said, laughing. It irritates the esophagus and stomach, causing nausea and stomach pains. Alcohol is also a diuretic, stimulating urine production and dehydrating the body – the reason one hangover symptom is thirst.

It also lowers blood sugar, Swift said, by clogging the liver with fat globules so that it cannot metabolize sugar properly. A solid meal before drinking can slow the alcohol’s absorption into the bloodstream, compensate for low blood sugar and protect the stomach from irritation.

Swift warned that women have a lower alcohol tolerance than men. Not only are women generally smaller, but they have less body water. “If a woman and man who weigh the same amount drink the same amount of alcohol,” he said, “the woman will always have a higher blood alcohol level.”

Though some tired students may turn to caffeine to re-energize a exhausted system, Swift said coffee can exacerbate a hangover. Not only can it irritate the stomach, but its caffeine can stimulate the already over-excited brain, and is a diuretic, further dehydrating the body. “There’s so much variability,” Swift added. “Some people might get very sick if they drink coffee but other people will down two 20-ounce Starbucks and feel fine.”

Due to the guesswork involved in selecting hangover cures, Swift proposed a more responsible solution ­- “the only absolute effective way is to not drink.”

But if the folk cures have persisted this long, science may do little to dissuade students from them, no matter how creative or fanciful.

“If you watch like a season of MacGyver before you go to sleep, you’ll be sober,” said James Brandt ’08. “And you’ll know a lot about the world.”

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