There ain't no cure for hangover
Modern medicine is one of the wonders of our age. Despite myriad advances that have added decades to our lives in modern times, there ain’t no cure for love, as Leonard Cohen laments, and there’s none for hangovers either.
Given our propensity to binge drink, Irish people lose a colossal amount of time to hangovers in their lives. Christmas can be one drinks party after another, followed by one hangover after another.
The Department of Health has even put a figure on it. It estimates that the “loss of productivity due to alcohol” (ie hangovers) was €527 million in 2007, which are the latest available figures. Work absences accounted for another €330 million a year.
We are the binge-drinking junkies of Europe. A Eurobarometer report found 28 per cent of Irish people binge drink every week, which means a similar proportion of the population will be nursing some class of a hangover on a weekly basis.
It ought, in theory, not to be beyond the wit of pharmacists, scientists or doctors to find a cure that would make one wake up the night after a spell of heavy drinking to feel like one had not been drinking at all.
Such a breakthrough would surely make its creator a billionaire, but it has not happened – although it has not stopped many from trying.
The latest hangover fad is from an American company Bytox. It claims to deliver a cocktail, if you’ll pardon the pun, through a patch which replaces vitamins and minerals leached by the body during a bout of heavy drinking.
Alcohol affects the body in many ways. It affects the brain by inhibiting the production of the anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) which regulates the kidney.
Three times as much fluid is lost through alcohol than is ingested by the body, hence the feelings of dehydration. With excessive urination comes a depletion in magnesium, potassium and calcium.
The effects on the liver are the reason it is so difficult to treat a hangover. The liver filters out toxins by turning alcohol first to acetaldehyde.
The acetaldehyde is changed to acetate by a protein called glutathione and excreted from the body as harmless CO2 and water. There is a finite amount of glutathione, though, and, during a night of drinking, it cannot process all the alcohol in the blood stream.
This allows acetaldehyde to flood the body. This nasty substance is between 10 and 30 times more toxic than the alcohol itself. It affects the stomach and the nervous system in particular.
Acetaldehyde accounts for the nausea, the fraught nerves and the general feelings of unwellness that accompany a hangover.
Doctors use this process in the drug Antabuse, made famous by George Best, which inhibits the production of acetate and is designed to worsen the hangovers of alcoholics in a bid to stop them drinking.
“Alcohol is an extraordinarily toxic substance,” says Dr Conor Farren, a consultant at St Patrick’s University Hospital who treats alcoholism. “It causes 63 different diseases to the body. As a toxic substance it is brilliant. We should be grateful that all we get is a hangover.
“The physiology of what it does to the body is extremely complex. It causes a degree of destruction. It doesn’t do it in a single way. It interacts with each organ in a very different way. It is not a pure thing at all.”
Dr Farren says most people’s tolerance of alcohol goes up when they start drinking, plateaus and then goes down later in life, hence the ravages of time make hangovers worse.
“When your tolerance goes down, it may indicate that your body has enough. When you have a change of tolerance from going up to going down, it may be a tap on the shoulder.”
Dr Declan Bedford, the alcohol specialist in public health medicine for the Irish Medical Organisation, says hangovers do not act as a sufficient deterrent given the evidence. “We have a huge acceptance of drinking large amounts of alcohol. It is seen as a badge of honour and then it becomes acceptable. It has to be a badge of dishonour.”
Dr Bedford says many binge drinkers have developed a tolerance for alcohol which means that they avoid hangovers, but their work performances are still affected. Any cure for hangovers is “after the fact” and the damage is already done.
There is an element of moral hazard about hangovers being entirely self-inflicted.
Although it scarcely seems like a deterrent given the widespread public drunkenness, people would drink with even more impunity if they knew there was no morning after the night before. That is not anything we or society needs.
At a certain stage in one’s life, hangovers are nature’s way of saying that the party’s over. We find that we love alcohol more than it loves us. That Rubicon was crossed many moons ago for this writer but, for the purposes of research you understand, I decided to try Bytox.
After a night of pre-Christmas convivial drinking, the effects, if any, were marginal. I still felt lousy the next day. Moderation is the only way, having exhausted all the alternatives.
The makers of this self-styled wonder-cure insist you have to put the patch on 45 minutes before you start drinking. Over the course of an evening, I drank a bottle of wine and lots of water. When I woke up I had no headache and my mouth didn’t feel like a small bird had nested in it overnight.
Was this hangover-free dawn down to the patch or the water? It is hard to say, but my money’s on the latter.
As I move through my 30s, hangovers are easier to come by and harder to get rid of.
I tried Bytox during my annual friends’ Christmas lunch, usually a fast-track to a hangover as it starts early, I mix my drinks and I’m late to bed. The only way I survive is to drink gallons of water.
Next day, I was very tired but functioning. No headache or nausea.
I am doubtful this is down to a patch of vitamins. More likely the water and finally getting some sense.