Alcohol

The Absolute Best Way to Minimize a Hangover, According to a Doctor

Plus, we get to the bottom of that whole "beer before liquor" thing.

December  5, 2018
Photo by Mark Weinberg

According to a study that recently made me very jealous, roughly 23 percent of people may be resistant to hangovers. For the other 77 percent of us, well, at least there's black coffee, next-day bagel sandwiches, and lots of aspirin.

But maybe there's a better way, I thought to myself last Saturday, as I awoke later than I wanted to, the edges of a headache creeping in while I sluggishly made my way—all 15 feet—to my kitchen, for a pot of coffee. (This, from 2 1/2 glasses of red wine.)

So—after a long nap, an even longer shower, and more bacon-egg-and-cheeses than I'm proud of—I emerged from the weekend in one piece and called Chaun Cox, M.D., a physician with Mayo Clinic Health System, to get some answers.


Hangover 101

First thing's first: Why do we—77 percent of us, at least—get hungover in the first place?

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“One thing to add to your Dr.'s amazing explanation is that taking the supplement dihydromyricetin while drinking and again before bed can almost completely prevent any build-up of the congener acetaldehyde in your body. It's amazing stuff. It also prevent s the problem some people have with waking up half-way thru the night or tossing and turning (keeps gaba receptors in your brain from being too bombarded during drinking). Lastly, taking NAC with your vit c and b-vitmains will make your liver super man. ”
— Nate
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According to Dr. Cox, a lot of it comes down to dehydration.

"Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it makes us go to the bathroom more," he says. It contains something called congeners, which are basically substances other than ethanol produced during the alcohol fermentation process—like methanol, acetone, acetaldehyde, esters, tannins, and aldehydes—and which are responsible for some of the way that non-distilled liquor tastes. These, he explains, are toxic to the body, meaning, "generally, they affect how our cells operate. When they do that, the body wants to get rid of them as quickly as possible, so they can’t damage our cells."

Tannins, for example, are congeners you may have heard of, found in wine.

"When alcohol breaks down, our bodies recognize that those congeners are toxic, and the kidney tries to flush them out, so it's pulling water from our bodies to dispose of them," he explains. "We lose things like sodium, potassium, and other essential elements in the process. Then, we feel miserable: muscle aches, headaches, etc."

Sounds familiar.


What to Do Before You Drink

Fill up on protein & fats

According to Dr. Cox, eating a meal high in protein and fats slows the absorption of alcohol from the gastrointestinal tract to the liver. "Meaning, alcohol will sit in the stomach and intestine longer and get broken down more there, before moving on to the liver," which is helpful for cushioning some of the internal processing that leads to a hangover, he says.

Hydrate

As obvious as it may be, Dr. Cox stresses that hydration before drinking can help to build up reserves that counteract alcohol's diuretic effects.


What to Do While You're Drinking

Space out your drinks & hydrate in between

The only surefire way to avoid a hangover is to not drink at all. Plan B? Drink in moderation, and pace yourself.

"The best thing you can do is space out your drinks," says Dr. Cox. "The average person can process roughly one normal drink—like, a single shot of whisky, or a beer—in about an hour. Spreading out drinks accordingly helps stop those congeners from building up for processing." It'll also make you thirsty, he says, which is even further effective in counteracting some of the dehydration alcohol causes.

Choose Your Alcohol Wisely & Mix Thoughtfully

Broadly speaking, Dr. Cox explains, different types of alcohol have different amounts of congeners—dark liquors (like bourbon, red wine, and reposado or añejo tequila) tend to have higher levels of congeners, while clearer alcohols (like vodka, silver tequila, and white wine) tend to have lower levels of congeners. The fewer congeners you consume, the better to lessen your hangover symptoms.

If you're going to mix alcohols, Dr. Cox says, there's some truth to that old adage "beer before liquor, you've never been sicker; liquor before beer, you're in the clear." In the first scenario, he says, you've engaged your body in metabolizing the beer (typically a lower alcohol content), and then you shoot in much higher levels of alcohol while it's already busy processing, which causes that build-up of congeners you want to avoid. But in the inverse scenario, where you've had harder liquor first, when you add beer to the mix, you’ve already front-loaded the highest alcohol volume you’re asking your body to metabolize, and you're just adding a low level of alcohol with a high overall volume of liquid, which is easier to process.


What to Do After You Drink

If You Want a Bedtime Snack, Choose Simple Carbs

If you're craving a snack after drinking and before bed, says Dr. Cox, reach for some easy-to-digest carbohydrates. "It'll give you sugar in your body, giving your body more energy—which you lose when you urinate out the alcohol," he says.

Who am I to disobey a doctor's orders? (Hi, dollar pizza!)

Hydrate Again Before You Sleep—& Make Sure You Do Sleep!

Did you think you'd get out of here without another reminder to hydrate?

Dr. Cox reiterates that drinking water will be immensely helpful in mitigating how you feel the next day, and he suggests a big glass of water before you fall asleep, even if you've been drinking water throughout the evening. Sleep, too, is critical: "When we haven’t slept as much, we haven’t given the body a chance to reset our metabolism. We haven’t had time to process the day physically or mentally."

You’re also more likely to be irritable after less sleep, he adds—which never helps a hangover.


Have any other brilliant tips for staving off a hangover? Let us know in the comments!

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13 Comments

calbo December 11, 2018
What works for me is hydration. I try to interleave my drinks with large glasses of water. The day after, I usually drink a Gatorade/Powerade/Whatever and fruit juice (not orange, more peach or apricot) because I just like it and helps me with the aftertaste.<br /><br />But now I'm too curious to try Doug's pear method...
 
Sarah December 10, 2018
Pedialyte is the only surefire way to nullify a raging hangover. These tips are fine for the 3-glasses-or-less crowd, but for the oops-I-drank-2-bottles nights, have some pedialyte or electrolyte powder on hand. Chug h2o or juice until you feel it sloshing around like a water mattress. Sleep as long as possible. Pedialyte. Maybe some weed.
 
Linda K. December 7, 2018
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Doug S. December 6, 2018
I am a firm believer Afters a years worth of hands-on testing, that eating a pear or drinking Asian pear juice prohibits you from getting a hangover. It can also stop you from getting as inebriated as you normally would. Different pears has different results. Red pears actually makes the problem worse. Asian pears work the best. There are enzymes in the pears that prohibit the absorption of alcohol.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. December 8, 2018
Fascinating! I'll have to try that.
 
Nate December 6, 2018
One thing to add to your Dr.'s amazing explanation <br />is that taking the supplement dihydromyricetin while drinking and again before bed can almost completely prevent any build-up of the congener acetaldehyde in your body. It's amazing stuff. It also prevent s the problem some people have with waking up half-way thru the night or tossing and turning (keeps gaba receptors in your brain from being too bombarded during drinking). Lastly, taking NAC with your vit c and b-vitmains will make your liver super man.
 
Nate December 6, 2018
Something else to add to all that, which is less important: Your body experiences inflammation while drinking. That's probably why Becca M. finds Advil helpful before bed. I recommend a half dose of Holy Basil before bed for inflammation and to normalize cortisol levels.<br />(I'm contemplating putting together a whole website on this topic at some point, actually, once I learn more.)
 
Becca M. December 6, 2018
I drink a good bit of water before bed and take some Advil. Usually after sleeping I have no sign of a hangover. Just saying, I've only felt hungover once and I forgot my rictual just that once. NEVER AGAIN!
 
Kathy W. December 6, 2018
My go to after over indulging is water and a B complex with C tablet (or two), sometimes an electrolyte solution or Vitamin Water. Based it on the 'banana bag' they give to persons in the ER who have had way too many....
 
Eric K. December 5, 2018
Hm, I thought I knew how to do this...but learned a lot. Thanks, Ella.
 
Naomi A. December 5, 2018
A simple and effective approach:<br />Hydration is key before, during, and after imbibing, but a nice Vitamin B tablet before you start will ensure a much better morning after.
 
cv December 5, 2018
Pedialyte or other electrolyte beverages including sports drinks such as Gatorade.<br /><br />Pedialyte is designed for cranky infants; if it didn’t do its job the company would have gone out of business decades ago.<br /><br />Great stuff for combatting potential undesirable effects of drinking.
 
Eric K. December 5, 2018
I've heard this, too.