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Understanding Overindulgence

Dec 11, 2012 07:59PM ● By Cate Reynolds
When you eat, drink, and get too merry during the holiday season, you’ll likely suffer the consequences the next morning. With cocktail parties, holiday wine dinners, and general merriment lurking around every corner, it’s easier to fall prey to a hangover at the end of the year than any other month, even if only by accident.

Why we get hangovers

Biology course refresher: Hangovers are thought to be an early symptom of alcohol withdrawal. When you imbibe, your liver and its dutiful enzymes break down the alcohol. Your liver is only capable of metabolizing one ounce of liquor per hour, and it doesn’t work overtime.

Therefore, if you down two cocktails as soon as you enter that party, your body accumulates it in your blood and tissue, increasing your blood alcohol content. When your body metabolizes the alcohol, it creates a byproduct, acetaldehyde, which contributes to hangover symptoms. The more alcohol your body has to metabolize, the more acetaldehyde produced, and the worse your hangover symptoms. The type of alcohol you drink can also affect the severity of a hangover.

All liquors have chemicals known as congeners, created from fermentation, but in essence, the darker the color of the spirit, the more congeners it has. That’s why those whiskey hangovers are much more painful than those stemming from vodka cocktails.

How to avoid a hangover

The most obvious preventative measure for a hangover is not to indulge. ’Tis the time of year for indulgence of every sort, though, and it is possible to curb the inevitability of a hangover.

First, remember why hangovers form and adjust your drinking habits accordingly. This means slowing down your consumption to no more than one drink an hour. If you can’t sip and savor for that long, switch to a glass of water once you’re done nursing that Cosmopolitan.

While you might have a fondness for bourbon or red wine, you’re less likely to regret a gin-based drink or Chardonnay, if you remember the concept of congeners. And don’t be afraid to sample the party’s appetizers freely, as the more food in your stomach when you indulge in a cocktail, the slower it will be absorbed into your bloodstream.

How to “cure” a hangover

Despite what those products on the Internet claim, you can’t really cure a hangover (other than giving it time to fade away). If you wake up with a splitting headache and upset stomach, first replenish your system with a variety of fluids. Water, of course, is the number one priority, but sports drinks can get some much-needed electrolytes into your system. Caffeine isn’t likely to help the hangover, but the last thing you want is to go into caffeine withdrawal at the same time as a hangover, so go ahead and turn on that espresso machine. (Don’t think it will help you sober up the night before, though; it will not.) Beyond that, take a nap if you can—alcohol interferes with sleep patterns, so you’re probably pretty tired after a night of cocktail parties.

And, note, you’re not imagining your hangovers are worsening as you age—as early as five or so years after your 21st birthday (that’s when we all took our first drinks, right?), your body begins to lose its ability to process the alcohol as efficiently. So while three glasses of wine on a school night in college might not have fazed you, those same three glasses on a work night could now have you snoozing at your desk. The good news is that these days, you’re likely able to afford the fancy spirits rather than bottom-shelf bottles—and that, alone, is helpful in preventing a holiday hangover.

What Won’t Work: Debunking Hangover Myths

Myth #1: The hair of the dog…
Because hangovers begin once your blood-alcohol levels begin to decrease, reaching their worst when the levels hit zero, sipping on a Bloody Mary the next morning just postpones the inevitable hangover.

Myth #2: Take a painkiller before bed.
Most of us know that taking acetaminophen (common brand: Tylenol) is a bad idea after imbibing because it, too, is metabolized in the liver. A better choice is ibuprofen, but it might not help as much as you think. The pill is most effective within four hours of taking it, so when you wake up eight hours later, the effects are long gone.

Myth #3: Eating before bed can curb a hangover.
For food to help prevent absorption of alcohol, it must be in your stomach before you indulge. In other words, breaking into the fridge after a few too many drinks won’t do anything but destroy your diet.