The Hangover: God, I hate thee.

Once, during prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.

–          W.C. Feilds

I open my eyes and already I can feel it. It’s a simmering pool of blackness, on the verge of boiling over, just below the surface of my brain. My mouth is dryer than a child’s sand pit and tastes not dissimilar from one. My stomach is fine, but that will change soon. I need a glass of water like Prince needs an inch. My muscles ache and I have the vague feeling that when I stumble downstairs to see my flatmates I’m going to be highly embarrassed by something I did but can’t quite remember. I am hung-over. Life’s little way of telling me that I’m a useless idiot. In the words

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of Ellen Digeneres ‘A hangover is when you open your eyes in the morning and wish you hadn’t’.

Did I really need that last shot, that second bottle of wine or the third? The hangover is a subject that is steeped in deep ritual. I personally can’t say that I am a fan of the hangover but at the same time I am certainly no stranger to it. As I write this I am struggling to remember another night out, the memory washed out, patchy and old. As such, I am looking straight down the barrel of a hangover today. Bring on the roiling belly, vicious headache and the urge to consume anything with grease content high enough to make paper see-through.

I know, from personal experience, and from research that the key ingredient in a good hangover, if we ignore the obvious alcohol, is dehydration. Ethanol has an osmotic effect on the blood. It can drain fluids from the tissues of the body and into the blood stream, where they are passed through the kidneys and out onto parked cars, hedges and mailboxes. Dehydration is what makes us wake on a Sunday morning with a cottony mouth and a headache that could put down a bull elephant. It is a factor in the sore, aching muscles and the shaky hands. It is also the easiest way to lessen the effect of a hangover and I would struggle to find a student in the country who wouldn’t swear by a ‘blue Powerade’ as the greatest gift to mankind. I personally have great faith in the restorative powers of the blue Powerade. The problem was that last night I didn’t drink one. As a result my sodium and potassium levels are now lower than a tipsy gymnast at a limbo party and if I manage to take in any water now it is more likely to upset my stomach than pick me up.

As I stagger out of bed and down stairs to find something eat the second stage of any good hangover kicks in, nausea. I have to pause on the stairs and wait for a wave of it to pass before turning tail and heading back for bed; greasy food is no longer the answer. The reason behind the nausea is the affect of alcohol on the lining of the stomach and the products that the liver produces as it breaks down the toxins we recently enjoyed ingesting. An enzymic chain of dehydrogenase and a host of other such wonderfully named proteins results in ethanol being changed into acetaldehyde and that into acetic acid. The most interesting thing about this chain is not the ridiculous size of the words but the fact that some of the products are as much as thirty times more toxic than alcohol, are carcinogenic and in some wonderful cases, mutagenic. Thus we have the least pretty aspects of a hangover.

My journey into pain and sickness is paused briefly when I take some time out to hug my toilet. Having done what clearly needed to be done I shuffle back to my bed. ‘Sleep it off’ I tell myself. As with almost any illness or fugue that affects us regularly the hangover has a startling array of potential cures and old-wives tales surrounding it. Possibly one of the least appetising to me right now is the ‘hair o’ the dog’, a phrase that came from the ancient practice of placing dog hair in the bite wound from a rabid dog. This vicious and seemingly self hating method of curing a hangover involves topping up of alcohol in the morning as a way of ‘stretching out’ a hangover and lessening its affects. Unsurprisingly research has shown that it has about as much affect as placing dirty animal hair in a bite wound. Needless to say I avoid this non-cure. Isotonic sports drink sipped slowly is my answer and usually works wonders. Not today however; it seems like I’m in for the long haul. Other cures, some of which have strong scientific backgrounds, include overdosing B12 vitamins, vitamin B6, eggs and the cysteine that they contain, and a host of chemical answers that may or may not work.

As with nearly all illnesses without a strict medical cure, think the common cold, the best answer is simply rest and to stay hydrated. I agree whole heartedly with this course of action, though lying in bed I can only think that the prevention rather than treatment route would have been the better option. In the words of Max Pittler of the British Medical Journal ‘the most effective way to avoid the symptoms of a hangover is to avoid drinking’. Unfortunately my first thought when I pick up a mojito isn’t that I could avoid a hangover by putting it back down with out reducing its volume. I don’t think anyone’s thought is. I only wish that I was that smart; but it’s too late now, I think, as I stagger back to the toilet.

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