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Hangover Helpers

Tips to avoid that pounding head and queasy stomach this New Year's

SATURDAY, Dec. 30, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Don't look to Khursheed Navder for sympathy if you drink too much on New Year's Eve and wake up with a wicked hangover.

Navder, a registered dietitian and associate professor in the nutrition and food science program at Hunter College in New York City, is willing to offer you some advice on how to deal with the party-fueled problem, however.

But first, it may help to understand the science behind that throbbing, queasy, mouth-full-of-cotton malaise. According to Dr. Christine Lay, a neurologist at The Headache Institute at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City and co-author of an upcoming article on hangovers in the journal Headache, the culprits are:

  • Dilation of blood vessels. This may contribute to the throbbing headache.
  • Low blood sugar. Alcohol can interfere with the liver's ability to produce glucose, which leaves you feeling weak and tired, clouds your thinking and makes you moody.
  • Poor sleep. While alcohol is sedating and promotes sleep initially, the sleep is often of poor quality with frequent awakenings due to factors such as decreased rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
  • The accumulation of toxins. The main byproduct of metabolized alcohol, acetaldehyde, is a toxin that can make your heart race and lead to headache, sweatiness, flushed skin, nausea and vomiting.
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Alcohol promotes urination by inhibiting the release of the brain hormone that normally protects against dehydration. When dehydration is accompanied by sweating, vomiting or diarrhea, there is additional fluid and mineral loss leading to electrolyte imbalances The result? Excessive thirst, lethargy, dizziness and light-headedness.

So, if you do consume too much alcohol, drinking plenty of water is essential because dehydration is perhaps the most common cause of hangover symptoms.

"Those pounding headaches and everything else are related to the shriveling of the cells because they lose so much water," Navder said. "Before sleeping, force yourself to drink water. If you throw up, very good, because you're going to get some of the alcohol out that way."

If you forget to drink water before going to bed, then do it first thing in the morning. The sooner you replenish your fluid loss, the quicker you'll bounce back, Navder said.

If you don't feel like drinking water, then sports drinks are a good option because they replace essential salts and minerals that were flushed out of your body during frequent urination. Non-acidic fruit juices are another good choice because the sugar in them helps prevent hypoglycemia and feeling weak and lightheaded.

Also, avoid coffee and other caffeinated beverages. Caffeine does not speed up the body's metabolism of alcohol. All it does is irritate the stomach lining and prevent you from falling asleep, which is one of the best ways to escape a hangover, she said.

Navder's next bit of advice involves a bit of tough-love: exercise. While being active is the last thing you may want to do when you have a pounding head, it increases blood flow to the brain and the rest of the body and induces sweating, which helps the body purge alcohol, she said.

Other tips, courtesy of Navder and the U.S. National Institutes of Health:

  • Try to eat because food will reduce the irritation to your stomach lining. Soups are good for replacing salt and potassium depleted by alcohol, and fruits and vegetables can help replenish lost nutrients.
  • You can take pain relief medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium to reduce your headache and muscle aches as long as your stomach isn't upset and you have no history of ulcers or bleeding problems. Antacids can help ease nausea and gastritis.
  • Drink a glass of water in between drinks containing alcohol. This will help you drink less alcohol, and will also decrease the dehydration associated with drinking alcohol.

Navder also has some hangover-prevention advice. Drinking lighter-colored alcohol and higher brands of alcohol may reduce the severity of a hangover. That's because lighter-colored drinks, such as vodka, gin and white wine, have fewer congeners -- a toxic byproduct of fermentation and aging -- than darker-colored drinks such as whisky, brandy and red wine.

And more expensive alcohol generally contains fewer congeners because it goes through a more rigorous distillation process that filters out more congeners.

She also suggests that you eat while you drink, because food in your stomach slows the absorption of alcohol. But don't munch on salty snacks because they'll just make you thirsty and likely to drink more.

Or, Navder said, you could just avoid booze altogether. "With a hangover, I think prevention is definitely better than the cure," she said.

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about hangover prevention and treatment.

SOURCES: Khursheed Navder, Ph.D., R.D., registered dietitian and associate professor, nutrition and food science program, Hunter College, The City University of New York, New York City; U.S. National Institutes of Health; December 2006, press statement, American Headache Society, Mt. Royal, N.J.
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