The after-effects of a night of heavy drinking can include headaches, muscle aches, upset stomach, mental fog, dehydration, tiredness, and low blood sugar. Although only time can eliminate a hangover, there are a number of things which people can do to alleviate the symptoms--some of which may be helpful, some of which are harmless, and some of which are not medically recommended. Things commonly used as remedies for hangover symptoms include food and liquids, analgesics, vitamins, exercise, stimulants, depressants, etc. Let's look at these in detail:
Rehydration: Alcohol is a diuretic and causes dehydration via increased urination. A lot of the wretchedness associated with hangover is due to dehydration so it is important to rehydrate. Sports drinks such as Gatorade have a balanced electrolyte content so they are a good bet for rehydration. Pedialyte has even more electrolytes. If you prefer to use water to rehydrate then we recommend that you also get some salt intake by eating something like french fries for example.
Warning: drinking a lot of water quickly without getting any electrolytes with it can lead to a condition known as water intoxication which is potentially fatal.
Besides rehydrating people also use food and liquids to settle their upset stomachs and raise their blood sugar back up. The following are some favorites:
Chocolate milk or ice cream: this settles the stomach, rehydrates, and raises blood sugar all at once. Milk is also rich in vitamin D.
Cysteine: cysteine has been shown to neutralize a lethal dose of the alcohol metabolite acetaldehyde in rats. It has not been tested with normal levels of alcohol or acetaldehyde in humans so its efficacy as a hangover remedy remains uncertain. Sources of cysteine include eggs, milk, meat, onions and garlic, many of which are used in traditional hangover cures. For the scientific research on cysteine and acetaldehyde see Sprince et al 1974 and Salaspuro 2007.
Beef bouillon: if you find that you can't eat anything else at least try to get down some beef bouillon. This can help you to rehydrate and restore missing electrolytes while at least getting some nutrition back into your system.
Vegemite on toast: a favorite hangover cure in Australia. Vegemite is made from yeast and is rich in B vitamins and folic acid which are depleted by drinking.
Tomatoes: many traditional folk remedies for hangovers call for tomatoes. Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin A and C, beta-carotene, and the antioxidant lycopene. Tomatoes are clearly a healthy and nutritious thing to eat whether they have any magical powers against hangovers or not.
Bacon, eggs and toast: a good meal to settle the stomach and also replenish blood sugar. Both the eggs and the bacon contain cysteine which we just discussed above. Salt in the bacon replenishes the essential electrolyte sodium..
Ocha-zuke: this is a favorite hangover cure in Japan--a gentle dish often eaten when one has an upset stomach. Ocha-zuke consists of a bowl of rice topped with things like chopped nori seaweed or sesame seeds, powdered miso, etc. A steaming hot cup of green tea is poured over the top of the rice and Japanese style pickles such as salt pickled Chinese cabbage are eaten on the side. The tea provides caffeine with less acid than found in coffee.
Kim chee and rice: in Korea kim chee and rice is the cure for everything. Kim chee is Chinese cabbage pickled in red pepper and garlic. Red pepper dilates blood vessels and increases blood flow. Garlic contains cysteine. Koreans like to drink barley tea or ginseng tea with their kim chee and rice.
Borscht: Russians use borscht as a hangover cure.
Bananas: good for replenishing the electrolyte potassium.
Taurine: there is evidence that the amino acid taurine works to prevent and reverse liver damage and that it may also work to prevent or cure a hangover. Natural sources of taurine include seafood and meat. The energy drink Red Bull also contains taurine. However, Red Bull also contains caffeine and mixed drinks made with Red Bull such as Vodka Red Bull are controversial. Sweden banned Red Bull after two people died after drinking Vodka Red Bull. For the scientific evidence on taurine and the prevention or repair of liver damage see Kerai et al 1998 and Kerai et al 1999. See also BBC News 2005.
Herbal teas: ginger tea, ginseng tea, and peppermint tea are all traditional treatments for hangover symptoms. Ginger is a natural painkiller and antioxidant. Ginger has been shown to reduce nausea and gastrointestinal distress in clinical studies. Peppermint tea is traditionally used to reduce nausea and gastrointestinal distress. For the scientific research on ginger as an anti-nausea agent see Borrelli et al 2005, Ernst and Pittler 2000, Levine et al 2008, and Ozgoli et al 2009.
Honey: honey consists of sugars, minerals and vitamins it is good for replenishing blood sugar in people with hangovers. People who have been on long drinking benders and have depleted thiamine should be careful about ingesting sugars because this can precipitate wet brain.
Warning: a diet consisting of nothing but alcohol and carbohydrates with no vitamins can lead to an irreversible form of brain damage known as wernicke-korsakoff syndrome aka wet brain aka beri beri. Always be sure to get your vitamins--particularly B1.
If a night of heavy drinking has left you with a headache or muscle aches your first impulse might be to reach for a painkiller--but you should be aware that not all painkillers are the same.
Warning: Tylenol is toxic to the liver and we strongly recommend that people who drink alcohol avoid Tylenol at all costs because of the potential for liver failure. Tylenol is also sold in the US under the generic names acetaminophen and paracetamol. Anacin-3 is also the same as Tylenol although other types of Anacin are not. Tylenol is also sold under the name Panadol in Europe, Asia, Central America, and Australia. For the scientific evidence and counter-evidence about the use of Tylenol with alcohol see Myers et al 2008, Prescott 2000, and Schmidt et al 2002.
Aspirin: Aspirin is safe to take when you are hungover. However, if you have an upset stomach with your hangover aspirin might make this worse. You might also want to avoid aspirin if your stomach is sensitive to it. Buffered aspirin is another option. Try to avoid aspirin for at least six hours before drinking again because it can lead to higher BAC (blood alcohol content).
Ibuprofen: Ibuprofen is gentler on the stomach than aspirin and is safe for the liver. For many people it might be the best bet to take when hungover. It is sold under the names Advil and Motrin. Avoid ibuprofen if you have heart, circulatory or gastro-intestinal problems.
Some people say that hangover symptoms can be cured by mega-doses of vitamins--particularly vitamins C and the B vitamins. These claims have not yet been tested scientifically so we do not know how much truth there is to them. We do know that drinking leads to vitamin depletion and in particular to the depletion of thiamine aka B1. A shortage of vitamin B1 can lead to permanent brain damage in the form of wernicke-korsakoff syndrome aka wet brain aka beri beri. We strongly urge all people who drink alcohol to take adequate doses of vitamins every day--particularly B1. On the average drinkers require more vitamins and minerals than non-drinkers.
Warning: excessive doses of certain vitamins can lead to death by vitamin poisoning. Be careful to avoid exceeding the maximum safe doses of vitamins when mega-dosing.
Mild exercise like yoga stretches or walking can help you to work a hangover out of your system. It is very important to remain adequately hydrated and replenish electrolytes if you are exercising with a hangover since your body is already dehydrated. Be sure to drink sports drinks such as Gatorade. We recommend that you avoid strenuous exercise while hungover because you will be less coordinated when hungover and there is a danger of injury as well as dehydration.
Caffeine: although no scientific studies on the effectiveness of caffeine for treating hangover symptoms have been carried out, millions of people swear by the effectiveness of a big pot of coffee for dispelling the mental fog and morning-after cobwebs which come after a night of heavy drinking. It also goes great with your bacon and egg breakfast. The downside to coffee is that the acids in it might further upset and already upset stomach. Coffee is also a diuretic and can lead to further dehydration--so if you are treating your hangover with coffee be sure to have lots of water with it to help rehydrate.
Nicotine: a lot of people smoke their heads off when they are hungover. Many people report that nicotine helps to dispel some of the mental fog associated with hangover. But if you don't smoke we don't recommend that you start.
Other stimulants: Coca Cola was originally invented as a hangover cure and contained a good dose of cocaine. Cocaine is apparently quite effective at clearing up the mental fog that goes with a hangover--however, we strongly recommend that you avoid using cocaine. First it is illegal. Second, many people get into a vicious cycle of using alcohol to come down from cocaine and then using cocaine to wake up form alcohol--this is real bad news. We recommend that you stick to a pot of coffee or tea instead.
Alcohol: a lot of people cannot stand even the thought of alcohol when they are hungover; they are the lucky ones. Although "the hair of the dog that bit you last night" can relieve the symptoms of a hangover we strongly recommend against it. Drinking many days in a row can lead to alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Having several abstinence days a week is the best way to avoid withdrawals.
For those who do insist on having a "hair of the dog" on the morning after, some popular ones are: the Bloody Mary (vodka and tomato juice), the Mimosa (champagne and orange juice) and the notorious Prairie Oyster (brandy, angostura bitters, worcestershire sauce and raw egg). There is also a virgin prairie oyster (1 part olive oil, 1 raw egg yolk, salt and pepper, 1-2 tablespoons of tomato ketchup, a dash of Tabasco and worcestershire sauce and some lemon juice (or vinegar). Yum yum! Because of the danger of salmonella poisoning it is generally recommended that you avoid eating raw eggs.
Other depressants: other depressants such as cannabis or valium can also relieve hangover symptoms but once again we recommend against them. First of all cannabis is illegal and hence best avoided. Moreover, when you are stoned on pot many activities become undoable. Although valium and other benzodiazepines are legal with a prescription, both alcohol and benzos affect the GABA receptors and prolonged use of alcohol and benzos together can lead to dangerous withdrawal syndrome.
Some people say that a dose of Benadryl can help them feel better after a night of heavy drinking.
Much of the information on this page is anecdotal or inferential since there has not been much scientific research done on hangover cures. I have provided references for those bits of information which have some scientific support. The warnings about what not to do are based on researched scientific fact.
BBC News, Wednesday, 28 December 2005, The ultimate hangover cure? By Becky McCall
Borrelli F, Capasso R, Aviello G, Pittler MH, Izzo AA. (2005), Effectiveness and safety of ginger in the treatment of pregnancy-induced nausea and vomiting. Obstet Gynecol. 105(4):849-56.
PubMed Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15802416
Ernst E, Pittler MH.. (2000). Efficacy of ginger for nausea and vomiting: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Br J Anaesth. Mar;84(3):367-71.
PubMed Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10793599
Free Full Text http://bja.oxfordjournals.org/content/84/3/367.full.pdf
Kerai MD, Waterfield CJ, Kenyon SH, Asker DS, Timbrell JA. (1998). Taurine: protective properties against ethanol-induced hepatic steatosis and lipid peroxidation during chronic ethanol consumption in rats. Amino Acids. 15(1-2):53-76.
PubMed Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9871487
Kerai MD, Waterfield CJ, Kenyon SH, Asker DS, Timbrell JA. (1999). Reversal of ethanol-induced hepatic steatosis and lipid peroxidation by taurine: a study in rats. Alcohol Alcohol. Jul-Aug;34(4):529-41.
PubMed Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10456581
Levine ME, Gillis MG, Koch SY, Voss AC, Stern RM, Koch KL. (2008). Protein and ginger for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced delayed nausea. J Altern Complement Med. Jun;14(5):545-51.
PubMed Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18537470
Myers RP, Shaheen AA, Li B, Dean S, Quan H. (2008). Impact of liver disease, alcohol abuse, and unintentional ingestions on the outcomes of acetaminophen overdose. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. Aug;6(8):918-25
PubMed Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18486561
Ozgoli G, Goli M, Simbar M. (2009). Effects of ginger capsules on pregnancy, nausea, and vomiting. J Altern Complement Med. Mar;15(3):243-6
PubMed Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19250006
Prescott LF. (2000). Paracetamol, alcohol and the liver. Br J Clin Pharmacol. Apr;49(4):291-301.
PubMed Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10759684
Salaspuro V. (2007). Pharmacological treatments and strategies for reducing oral and intestinal acetaldehyde. Novartis Foundation Symposium. 285:145-53; discussion 153-7, 198-9.
PubMed Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17590993
Schmidt LE, Dalhoff K, Poulsen HE. (2002). Acute versus chronic alcohol consumption in acetaminophen-induced hepatotoxicity. Hepatology. Apr;35(4):876-82.
PubMed Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11915034
Sprince H, Parker CM, Smith GG, Gonzales LJ. (1974). Protection against acetaldehyde toxicity in the rat by L-cysteine, thiamin and L-2-methylthiazolidine-4-carboxylic acid. Agents Actions. Apr;4(2):125-30.