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F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 12/30/2004 8:59:16 AM ET 2004-12-30T13:59:16

Soon it will be New Year's Day, complete with bleary stares and throbbing heads.

Wine lovers may look askance at once-a-year bubbly drinkers, grumble about “amateur night” and get ready to uncork that special bottle. But hangovers remain a nasty little New Year's tradition.

This is serious business. In a 2000 paper, Tulane University researcher Dr. Jeff Wiese and other researchers concluded that drinking cost the United States $148 billion in lost productivity each year, most of it from next-day hangovers at work.

Remedies abound. Many are apocryphal, most are more folklore than science. It is not so much possible to neutralize drinking's effects as to minimize the aftermath.

More experience than I'd care to acknowledge tells me that moderation, and lots of water, are the only real ways to minimize a mean headbanger the following day. This is all very sound advice, with a medical imprimatur, but let's face it — reason and booze don't mix well.

The water thing is universally recommended whenever you drink, a good rule of thumb being one glass water to one serving of alcohol. It won't save you, but it helps dilute the alcohol intake a bit and offsets alcohol's dehydrating effects.

One very kind reader offers his wife shiatsu massage to counterbalance the “cocktail flu” — not a cure, but a way to minimize the throbbing head and help blood circulation. Another suggests a nice dip in a cool pool.  I've been reminded of my own hangover distraction: long, hot showers and a nap (sometimes concurrently).

Morning-after sip?
Many drinkers swear by the “hair of the dog” option — drinking just a bit more the following day.  Seattle sommelier Jake Kosseff has refined this option: “One doesn’t have to get schnockered the second day, just to have a moderate alcohol intake over the course of the day, beginning with something easy in the morning like moscato d’Asti, Champagne, Guinness Stout or an American-style lager such as Budweiser or Tecate.”

The medical evidence cuts both ways. “You actually are in alcohol withdrawal during a hangover,” says Aaron White, a research psychologist at Duke University Medical Center.

White explains it this way: Alcohol reduces brain function, and the brain fights back, so as you recover your brain engages in a sort of snapback, which can prompt symptoms like headache and anxiety.

The soothing effect from a bit more booze basically reverses the withdrawal — but isn't really an effective cure, and has unsettling parallels to addictive behavior.

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Moreover, White notes, if you wake up with alcohol still in your blood, you're simply further inebriating yourself. So this strategy might work on New Year's Day, if you can manage a modest toast over brunch, but probably isn't a good idea if you've got to work the following day.

Bloody Marys remain a popular option. Leaving the vodka aside, tomato juice does have benefits to the hangover sufferer. So do sports beverages like Gatorade, which help restore nutrients lost during an evening out.

A similar method gets a nod from chef and writer Monica Bhide: "Coconut water, I believe, is better than any sports drink out there and is really catching on as a good thing."

All three have healthy servings of electrolytes that alcohol purges, like potassium, sodium and often magnesium. A multivitamin may also help. Dr. James Zacny of the University of Chicago notes that most multivitamins now contain key electrolytes.

Pills and coffee
Aspirin is always popular to help offset the sting, if not cure it, as is ibuprofen. I've found it far more helpful if you take it before you collapse into bed, and White agrees that's more effective: “Once pain has set in, it's much much harder to get that signal to turn off.”

One big caveat: Research by Dr. Peter Draganov at the University of Florida and colleagues showed that significant use of acetaminophen (the ingredient in Tylenol and similar drugs) can cause liver damage when frequently mixed with alcohol.

Caffeine's painkilling properties may help reduce your head throbbing, but note that its diuretic properties cause you to lose the water you're desperately trying to replenish. Says Zacny: “You don't want to drink a liquid that makes you pee more.”

As for some of the best advice — that only time, and a good night's rest, can really heal a hangover — it's certainly true. But keep in mind that sleep doesn't really count if you're still drunk when you close your eyes. Alcohol lightens the depth of sleep and has been shown to disrupt deeper REM sleep. “You're sedated,” White says, “but you're not getting proper sleep. You're actually sleeping more lightly.”

That's why you feel far better if you can manage a nap the following day, once you've sobered up.

As for purported commercial hangover cures and preventatives, most lack significant data to back up their claims — though according to research from last June , Tulane's Wiese administered an extract made from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus to drinkers, fed them cheeseburgers and hard liquor (in the name of science, of course) and then had them driven home.

The next day, those who received the extract five hours before drinking lacked some hangover symptoms like nausea. Other symptoms, like headache, persisted.

But many doctors remain unconvinced of the commercial cures, and suggest sticking to basics: Keep drinking water, eat food along the way and pace yourself — in part to allow your liver time to convert alcohol into acetaldehyde and further break it down.

Even the major booze companies are helping to spread the word. Diageo, which sells such liquors as Jose Cuervo and Smirnoff, recently launched a TV ad stressing designated drivers and responsible drinking over the holidays.

One last New Year's strategy: Consider non-alcoholic drinks for at least part of the evening before you pop corks. Bartenders have taken sober cocktails well beyond orange juice. Sparkling ciders like Martinelli's and Sonoma Sparkler maintain the look and feel of Champagne.

Now go have fun.

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