Perspective: The search for the perfect hangover cure
The worst hangover I can remember began on a Monday morning inside a hotel room in Portland, Maine. I was lying on the bathroom floor, my head jammed through the shower curtain so my then-boyfriend could lather my hair with shampoo. I was too weak even to vomit.
We had spent the previous Sunday merrily bar-hopping and oyster-slurping, and the alarm clock rang before the sun came up, well before my body could process all that delicious poison. After I dragged myself through airport security, I slumped in a chair at the gate and devoured an entire loaf of bread. Chewing hurt. I could hear my teeth creaking. I still had to go to work, a thousand miles away.
I am a dumb and careless person, but I take comfort in the fact that I'm not alone.
As we wrap up 2017 in a hail of holiday overindulgence, plenty of us will spend the next few weeks lining our throats with bubbly regret. And on New Year's Eve, our great global drinking holiday, even the responsible among us will make a noble effort to get turnt. Let it be said: We're going to feel like crap.
The people who want to get into your wallet already know this. So many of us dopes overindulge that the hangover business is a billion-dollar industry. It's such a forgone conclusion that we're going to make bad decisions that hangover relief treatments sit next to the liquor store cash register. “I drink this one all the time,” the kid selling me a jug of vodka says approvingly, as I sheepishly pile some $4 Life Support Recovery shots onto the counter.
The obvious solution to avoiding a hangover is to drink less, or, you know, not at all. But how else are you going to say goodbye to a depressing 2017—with a glass of warm milk? No, when the world is spiraling, the only solution is to chug until you no longer feel the tears streaming down your cheeks.
Of course, that means dealing with the aftermath.
A hangover is a collection of symptoms: headache, thirst, fatigue, dry mouth, difficulty concentrating and whatever the medical term is for feeling like your brain is leaking out of your ears. “It's a pretty variable syndrome from person to person,” says Dr. Colin McCluney, an OhioHealth family medicine physician. “What [hangovers] are is actually an area of some research and not a lot of clear answers.”
It turns out to be kind of complicated. Each hangover is unique. You and your buddy could pound the same number of Jäger shots in one night and, come morning, you'll want to die in your own special ways. About the only thing you'll have in common is that your body has metabolized most of the alcohol you consumed, and it is not happy. “It does seem to be kind of a stress response,” McCluney says.
Researchers might not know exactly why, but they know that age seems to affect a hangover, as does gender, McCluney says. What you drink seems to make a difference, too, as vodka is apparently a more gentle lover than bourbon. If you go out dancing, get a lousy night's sleep, smoke some weed—all of this could affect how you feel in the morning.
Lucky for your questionable judgment, though, you have a bevy of supplements, pills and drinks that promise to clear your head. There are the old reliables, Pedialyte and Alka-Seltzer, or a product loaded with aspirin and caffeine called Blowfish, which touts its “FDA-recognized” status.
If you prefer to shop local, the Life Support Recovery shots I bought from my vodka dealer come from a Columbus company started by some friends who got wasted in South Korea and discovered the wonder of Japanese raisin tree fruit. (An aside: The Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved anything as a hangover treatment, though it did hold a meeting earlier this year to discuss the safety of over-the-counter products marketed toward hangovers. According to the meeting minutes: “The committee thought labeling could be improved and questioned consumers' ability to comprehend the label, especially when they are hungover. … The committee advised that the label should not provide a false sense of security with regards to alcohol ingestion nor imply drugs ameliorate dangerous effects of alcohol on the body.”)
If you're really serious about battling the consequences of drinking, you can drag your morning-after carcass to Grandview Heights. On West Fifth Avenue, you'll find Hydrate Me, a “health and wellness IV hydration bar.” For $99, they'll pump you full of a cocktail meant to settle your stomach, boost energy and fight inflammation. Or for $20 less, you can pre-party with a similar mixture and, they say, avoid the hangover problem altogether.
So, does any of this stuff actually work? Look, I'm not going to knock what you think helps you feel better. Unless you're relying on the ol' hair of the dog, you dummy. “You're not getting rid of your hangover,” McCluney says. “You're just delaying it and probably making it worse.”
Some people swear by a greasy breakfast and a pot of strong coffee, or a 3-mile run and a blazing-hot shower. Some people swear by those over-the-counter products. Some people swear by nothing but Advil and the slow, cruel passage of time. “I like to hide in a quiet room with ice on my head for as long as possible,” says Cheryl Harrison, a professional consumer of intoxicating beverages as the editor of the Drink Up Columbus blog.
Harrison usually dodges a hangover by drinking her beer from a glass. After she drains a brew, she fills the cup with water and chugs that. But earlier this year, she got bombed off her face so she could test out Hydrate Me for her blog.
One night, she received the pre-party treatment and went on to drink about a dozen beers. She thinks. A week later, she headed to Hydrate Me to erase the cocktails and pints of the previous night. “I got up and thought I was going to be sick,” she says. “I tried to fight that down and drove 5 miles to the clinic. And that drive was rough.”
But it worked, she says. Both times.
Hydrate Me's slogan is, “Life's too short to recover slowly,” and it offers IV therapies for people who need a boost after a marathon or a cross-country flight or a rough night filled with poor choices. Co-owner Scott Holowicki says his clients tend to be work-hard/play-hard types who can't afford to spend a day on the couch. The spa's treatments for drinkers include such ingredients as B vitamins, the anti-inflammatory Toradol and Pepcid, an antacid and antihistamine.
“People are busy, and they have busy lives, and they want to feel better faster,” says Alicia Alvarado, a nurse practitioner who works at Hydrate Me. “It's amazing—they come in, and you can tell in their eyes. They perk up by the end.”
They also have to fork over the price of a really nice bottle of wine.
In comparison, Life Support Recovery's shots are as cheap as a really bad pint of beer. And they're sold in 16,000 stores, including Kroger and Giant Eagle, so they're easy to find (and painless to consume). The shot—which comes in two versions, one with caffeine—contains B and C vitamins, L-Glutathione and the Japanese raisin, which Life Support claims as its super ingredient.
I drank my shot after a romantic night alone with a bottle of wine, and I guess I didn't feel like taking a bone saw to my skull the next day. Brad McKean, Life Support Recovery's president, says the shots have become popular with an older crowd (ahem) that wants to avoid adverse reactions to even the smallest amount of alcohol. “This isn't a miracle cure,” McKean says. “It isn't a cure by any means. We don't try to say that we're going to cure anything.”
In fact, here is the truth: There is no such thing as a hangover cure, no matter what anyone tells you. McCluney says the only thing most treatments are hoping to cure, especially ones that promise a little too much, are their own bottom lines.
Binge drinking is a legitimate public health problem, on par with smoking, obesity and sitting on the couch. Nearly 90,000 people die each year due to excessive alcohol use, many in the prime of their lives. And frequent binge drinkers are probably experiencing worse health concerns than a pesky hangover. Regularly drinking way too much can lead to an increased risk of injuries, violence, liver diseases, cancer—the list goes on.
“People have a right to make a choice here [of whether to drink], but I think it needs to be an informed choice,” says Robert Brewer, director of the excessive alcohol use prevention team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Sadly, there are a lot of different ways that alcohol can kill you.”
Yeah, that's a bummer. But we know that, right? We keep drinking anyway. And if the threat of serious illness or death doesn't stop us, why would we be deterred by a headache that hasn't even arrived yet? So we order another round. We regret it and then do it again another day. The hangover, in the end, doesn't matter. And here's the funny thing—McCluney says that research suggests a true hangover cure wouldn't change our drinking habits much, either.
We're already doing what we want to.
It's been a while since I drank enough to really regret it the next day. My kid kind of ended my party days, and I suppose that's OK. But maybe I'll tear it up this New Year's Eve. Or maybe I'll wake up on Jan. 1, 2018, walk to the shower and wash my own damn hair.