Monday, June 9, 2014

In Praise of Hangovers

Last Saturday, a friend cancelled his plans to meet up with me at the local roller derby bout, citing “a mild hangover” as the reason. “Mild” in this context is a somewhat vague term, but whatever he really meant by it, I knew how he felt. Fortunately, I don’t feel it very often anymore.

I was a surprisingly moderate indulger of any kind in high school, given that it was the 1960s. So, my first full-blown hangover wasn’t until late in my freshman year at GW. My misery was lawful, since the legal drinking age in the District of Columbia in those days was 18. The culprits were White Russians (vodka, Kahlua, and cream) downed at a table with some friends in The Red Lion, shots of something else (Bourbon probably – at that point I didn’t ask) with the same friends in a fellow student’s dorm room, and – after the general merrymaking had ended for the evening – a nightcap or two of port wine (it seemed a good idea at the time) in my own room. Despite the 24/7 aroma of burnt herb in the dormitory hallways that persisted throughout my four years there, no THC or other chemical enhancements were in my bloodstream. They didn’t need to be.

Sometime after 4 a.m. I decided to let the stereo play to the end of the LP (it would turn itself off) while I lay back on the bed and dozed off to sleep.  The plan didn’t work out. Bed spin and all the associated nausea struck with a fury as soon as my eyes shut; opening my eyes did not make the wave of nausea stop. I leapt out of bed, bolted out the door, and hurried down the hallway to the bathrooms. Still playing on the stereo in back of me in my room was (no kidding) Melanie’s Leftover Wine, a song I cannot hear to this day without queasiness.

There are some things in life I don’t learn easily. So, despite that edifying first experience, it took more events much like it in ensuing years before I began to avoid them deliberately. The National Institutes of Health recommends no more than 4 drinks on any one day, and no more than 14 in any one week. That’s a more than adequate allowance nowadays. In the past couple of decades there have been entire years when I haven’t consumed 14 drinks. The reason, however, is not reformed virtue. Furthest thing from it. The reason is those mornings after the nights before.

Oddly enough, despite alcohol being the most ancient, enduring, and well-studied of popular intoxicants, scientists don’t really know what causes hangovers. Most of the supposed causes commonly offered in popular publications are wrong. Dehydration, for instance. Alcohol is indeed a diuretic, but keeping properly hydrated will not prevent a hangover, except to the extent thirst itself counts as a symptom. The build-up of NADH and acetaldehyde (byproducts of alcohol metabolization) is also commonly cited, and these two substances do seem to contribute to the malaise, but the correlation is weak; hangovers often are at their worst when acetaldehyde has dropped to a low level. Sugary drinks make hangovers somewhat worse due to the formation of lactates (from combining ethanol with glucose), but eliminating sugar will not eliminate the hangover, only marginally lessen it. The most promising hypothesis is that hangovers are an inflammatory response – a type of immune system reaction. This is supported by a high positive correlation of cytokine (an immune system signaling molecule) production with hangovers; injecting cytokines into sober subjects gives them the symptoms of a hangover without the benefit of the buzz.

The latter hypothesis also helps explain why about 23% of the population claim not to get hangovers – or, at most, inconsequential ones. Apparently, they are not lying. Immune systems vary from person to person, largely for genetic reasons, and some seem not to react much to alcohol. The bad news: folks with this trait are at higher risk of alcohol abuse. This is hardly surprising. The penalty the other 77% must pay for a blood alcohol content of .08 is always a dissuasive factor in their consideration of whether to get one, and how often.

It seems my own system is quite a productive cytokine factory, for, in truth, I get hangovers even below the NIH-approved daily allowance. This is probably a good thing on balance, even if it does make me a “designated driver” a bit more often than I care to be. As for the leftover wine, it can marinate dinner.

Melanie Safka Leftover Wine


  1. I've had the pleasure of having a mild hangover on one occasion. That was enough to convince me to avoid them in the future. I've never been a big drinker. I'm too much of a control freak. :) And it is more fun messing with the drunk people. I'll drink a glass of wine every once in a while, but that is about the extent of it.

    I've heard the story about drinking water before and after getting good and drunk helps mitigate a hangover. I think the Mythbusters even gave that one a go. :)

    1. One? You're a quicker study than I am. I repeated the experiment on numerous occasions until I was past 30.

      The Mythbusters earned their paychecks on that one.

  2. The cytokine theory holds up in my world - I take 2 ibuprofen if I'll have more than 2. I still have to drink a lot - of water that is;)- bc I'm sensitive to that stuff. I don't have sugar, but I can never imagine the havoc of mixing body woukd be very angry with me. As it is, my drink limit is becoming smaller with age. As you suggest, it's a price I'm very happy to pay for an internal safety guard.

    1. Yes, my limit is lower and the aftereffects longer than once was true. At 20 I'd be OK by the next afternoon. Now (even at the NIH limit) the malaise will linger throughout the day and evening.