A banging New Year's Eve party could leave your head banging in the morning. This common ailment, called a hangover, can easily be avoided by not drinking alcohol the night before; but if you do indulge in the bubbly this weekend, here are some scientific tips to avoid a miserable New Year's day.
Hangover "cures" come in all shapes and sizes. Research into hangover cures has shown there are only a few true-blue tricks, including drinking water and taking vitamins. But researchers are making headway into understanding how alcohol, and its resulting hangover, affect our brains and bodies.
Hangovers are caused by dehydration, combined with the toxic remnants of your drinks from the night before. "The liver converts [alcohol] into other chemicals, but once your liver processes it your kidneys have to get rid of it," Dr. Aaron Michelfelder, with the Loyola University Health System, told LiveScience. A lack of fluids means these toxins don't get urinated out. "After you drink too much and wake up with a hangover, the most important thing is rehydration. Drink water, or drink Gatorade, either is fine."
Boozers beware: If you aren't able to keep down fluids the next day, you probably require a trip to the ER.
Fighting the hangover
Traditional tricks to halt that hangover, like drinking coffee or more alcohol (or alcoholic coffee) don't work, researchers say. Coffee can make you more alert, but it won't treat any other symptoms, while the "hair of the dog" — treating a hangover with another drink, like a bloody Mary, or another glass of champagne — may make you forget your troubles, but will also make your hangover worse in the long run. More alcohol will just add more toxins to your already overloaded system and dehydrate you further.
Michelfelder suggests another plan to minimize the after-party in your skull: Before the party, take an anti-inflammatory drug, like ibuprofen or Aleve, to prevent inflammation in the brain. Avoid taking Tylenol, or anything with acetaminophen, since it can hurt your liver when combined with alcohol.
During your drinking escapades, Michelfelder recommends eating first (not waiting until you get the munchies after knocking back a few), and making sure to follow every drink with water (perhaps play a game of chug-the-water) [3 Ways to Make Holiday Drinks Healthier]
Being careful to monitor the amount you are imbibing is also important. Michelfelder recommends no more than five drinks for men and three for women in a three-hour period. Often what comes in one glass can be much more than "one drink," though. You can test your alcohol competency online to see if you know what really constitutes one drink.
The next day, lots of water and even some exercise will help your body rid itself of toxins that accumulate as the alcohol breaks down. Getting off the couch and pushing your blood around your body will quicken the process, Michelfelder said.
Too much alcohol may make you feel sick to your stomach, but it's also interfering with your body's ability to absorb vitamins it takes in, particularly B vitamins, Michelfelder said.
"B vitamins are very important in healing of nerves themselves," Michelfelder told LiveScience. "If someone has no B vitamins on board, it's going to take longer for the brain to heal."
Michelfelder recommends taking a vitamin-B supplement, both during the party and the morning after. Your body uses vitamin B to process alcohol, so you end up deficient in the essential nutrient the next morning, which could make you feel worse.
When choosing your vitamins go for a B-100 complex, which contains 100 percent of your daily value of B vitamins. They are available at drug stores from a wide variety of vitamin companies.
Drink of choice
Your hangover may also be impacted by what you are drinking. Different alcoholic drinks have different aftereffects, a study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research in March 2010 indicates. Toxic substances called congeners (a byproduct of the fermentation process) may be responsible for some of the hangover effects we feel.
These congeners are also responsible for the color of the drink: Darker liquors have more congeners than clear liquors. Researchers studied how hung-over people felt after getting drunk on either bourbon or vodka. Not surprisingly, alcoholic drinks made people feel more hung-over than the placebo, but bourbon made people feel even worse than vodka, the study researchers said.
"In the studies I've looked at, yes there is a difference, but it's fairly minimal," Michelfelder said. "Your hangover is probably more related to the amount of alcohol you drink and less related to the type of alcohol you drink, but it probably makes a small difference."
Some good news in alcohol science surfaced this year: One thing you don't have to worry about during your celebrations is the potential loss of brain cells that many people believe comes along with heavy drinking. New research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience in July, indicated that rat brain cells aren't damaged directly by alcohol, but the brain's ability to form long-term memories is dampened.
It could be that the damage is caused by the metabolites of alcohol formed when the liver digests it, instead of the alcohol itself. Long-term brain damage from drunkenness is probably caused by inflammation in the brain, another good reason to take an inflammation-reducing pill before drinking.
Somehow, a small number of people are resistant to hangovers, about 23 percent, a literature review in Current Drug Abuse Reviews in 2008 found. Researchers don't really know why some people would be resistant to hangovers, but it could be due to differences in the liver enzymes that metabolize the alcohol. Sadly, this probably makes them more likely to become problem drinkers, and researchers don't know if it also protects them from alcohol's damaging effects on the liver and brain.
Even if you successfully avoid the hangover, be careful how you ring in the New Year, since drinking might leave you with another little gift: recent studies have confirmed the No Duh! finding: Drinking leads to unprotected sex.
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Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.