Hangovers can affect people in various ways; some people may experience little in the way of symptoms the morning after a party, whereas others may feel nauseous, tired, irritable and have a severe headache.
There is no definitive cure for a hangover. The best way to beat one is to simply not drink alcohol the night before, or limit your intake so that it remains within sensible levels.
However, there are measures you can take the night before to lower the likelihood that you’ll get one (or, at least, make it easier to cope with), which we’ll discuss here.
Why do hangovers happen?
When we drink excessive amounts of alcohol, it causes several things to happen in the body, which can lead to unpleasant symptoms.
Firstly, alcohol is a diuretic which inhibits the distribution of a hormone called vasopressin, produced by the pituitary gland.
When the body lacks this hormone, the kidneys stop conserving water, which means that someone will need to pass urine more frequently; leading to dehydration.
Dehydration can cause several symptoms, such as a headache and loss of alertness.
Stomach and digestion problems
Alcohol can induce irritation in the gut, by causing the stomach to generate high levels of acid. This can cause discomfort, heartburn, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
Loss of blood sugar
Alcohol can cause an increase in insulin secretion, resulting in low blood sugar (also known as hypoglycaemia).
Low blood sugar can make you feel irritated, shaky and lethargic.
Whilst the initial effects of excessive alcohol consumption may make someone feel sleepy, the sleep that they end up having is likely to be of a poorer quality than they are used to. They may find it easier to get to sleep initially, but more likely to wake up in the middle of the night.
This is because drinking too much alcohol inhibits the body from going into the REM (deep sleep) stage of their sleep cycle; so someone will often find that they drift in and out of sleep through the night, and eventually wake in the morning feeling unrefreshed.
Excessive alcohol consumption might also tend to take place late in the evening and this in itself can obstruct regular sleeping hours.
How to 'beat' a hangover
Is there a way can you enjoy a few drinks but beat a hangover?
The most obvious way of avoiding a hangover is by abstaining from alcohol entirely.
However, it's understandable that people will indulge in a tipple or two on special occasions.
As we’ve said, there is no cure for a hangover, but what you do before, during and after a drinking session can have a significant impact on how you feel the next day.
Eat a balanced meal beforehand
Try to consume a meal ideally consisting of a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and (healthy) fats before you head out for drinks.
Having food in your stomach will not stop you from becoming intoxicated but it can slow down the rate at which alcohol is absorbed by the body.
Alcohol can influence the food choices that you make, so you may be more likely to select unhealthy options if you eat after a night out (as opposed to before).
Having a healthy meal before you go out for drinks reduces this risk.
Know your limits
Keep track of how much you’re drinking, and know when to stop.
Avoid certain kinds of drinks if you know you’re sensitive to them, and don’t mix your drinks if you know that this will cause problems the next day.
There is some evidence to suggest that darker spirits such as bourbon and rum may contain more toxins than clear-coloured alternatives such as vodka and gin.
However, sticking to clear spirits does not mean that you will avoid a hangover entirely. Some drinks might be worse than others, but if you drink any type of alcohol to excess it is likely you will still go on to experience unpleasant symptoms.
Stay within the NHS low risk drinking guidelines as much as you can, by not consuming more than 14 units within one week.
You should try to spread these 14 units over at least three different days.
Drinking more than six units in one session is considered binge drinking for women, and more than eight units is for men.
Drink enough water
Hydration is key when it comes to reducing the effects of a hangover.
Three tips to make sure that your body has enough fluids to combat the dehydrating effects of alcohol are:
- Being sufficiently hydrated before you start drinking. If you know that you are going out in the evening, then make a conscious effort to drink plenty of water throughout the day. The NHS recommends those in a typical British climate should drink six to eight glasses (roughly 1.5 to 2 litres) each day.
- Spacing out your alcoholic beverages by drinking water or a soft drink in between them. This will allow your body to maintain hydration levels whilst also slowing down the rate at which you consume alcoholics drinks.
- Remembering to drink some water before you go to bed and leave a glass of water on your bedside table.
Can ‘hair of the dog’ stop a hangover?
No. Drinking alcohol in the morning to reduce the effects of a hangover from the night before only delays the inevitable. Doing this regularly can also greatly increase the risk of alcohol dependence, and so should be avoided.
If you do have a night where you drink heavily, you should wait at least 48 hours before picking up another alcoholic beverage. This gives your heart, liver and digestive system time to recover.