It is what it is — alcohol has been our recreational drug of choice for, like, *forever*. But, while there are thousands of studies on alcohol, only a few hundred research the hangover and its terrors.
“We know a lot about the long-term effects of alcohol on the body,” says Dr. Vinay Sundaram, a hepatologist who studies alcoholic liver disease. “What’s happening in the body while you’re drinking and when you’re hungover—that’s more of a mystery.”
While freaking out isn’t the scientific term, it is a pretty accurate description of the flurry of immune system activity that’s the focus of some studies.
A team of researchers noticed hangovers are often accompanied by elevated levels of cytokines, the messaging system for our bodies’ immune responses.
When cytokines get busy, the immune system begins firing, and that can cause inflammation.
It also causes many other hangover-like symptoms: headaches, chills, fatigue, nausea, and stomach upset. And cytokines can mess with memory formation, meaning they might also account for alcohol-related lapses in memory.
It’s still being studied, but if inflammation is indeed the underlying mechanism, an anti-inflammatory pain reliever might help ease a hangover.
More recent studies got some unclear results on whether hangovers are actually related to the toxin acetaldehyde released when the liver processes alcohol.
Because acetaldehyde is so toxic, the body quickly changes it into a more stable compound called acetate. While acetate can trigger a headache, hangover symptoms are at their worst when acetaldehyde levels are low.
Newer studies are finding what we thought we knew about hangovers and how to cure them is largely the stuff of urban legend…. with some grains of truth.
According to the results of a study published in the 1950s, it’s true that the body excretes more water while drinking alcohol.
But we got the wrong conclusions from the results — many thought that, as the body was excreting more water while drinking alcohol, it would therefore become dehydrated — and this was simply accepted as a conclusive explanation for why we get hangovers.
This hypothesis was never tested, let alone confirmed.
Molecular biologist Patrick Schmitt decided to conduct his own study in 2018 and monitor the hydration of his subjects.
The study found that alcohol consumption doesn’t lead to dehydration, despite increased fluid excretion. “This means that the body does not lose any significant amounts of water,” said Schmitt.
“That recommendation to drink a lot of water when consuming alcohol is based on exactly this misconception,” he explained. “Since the body isn’t getting dehydrated, drinking water alongside alcohol has no effect on whether or not you end up with a hangover.”
The same goes, mind you, for drinking coffee.
Drinking water isn’t going to do any harm — it’s relatively pointless if you’re trying to alleviate a hangover but it’s hardly likely to make it any worse.
So, maybe, and only maybe a nice meal *before* you start drinking and taking an anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen or aspirin (but not a paracetamol or acetaminophen!) when hungover kicks in can help you. And if your head is already in the toilet, drink some water with electrolytes, sure. Cheers.