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Hangover Reasons and Remedies

Charles MacLean is Scotland's leading whisky writer. Over the last 15 years he has written prolifically on the subject, has broadcasted on television and radio and has presented lectures and tastings in the UK and abroad. He is regular contributor to Decanter magazine and The Malt Advocate in the US. He is also contributing editor of the Whisky Magazine and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's Newsletter and chairs it's nosing panel. His full-length books include Mitchell Beazley's successful Pocket Whisky Book, the standard work on whisky brands. In recognition of his services to Scotch whisky over many years he was elected "Keeper of the Quaich" in 1991, the highest honor the whisky industry can bestow. He lives near Edinburgh. “My first return of sense or recollection was upon waking in a strange, dismal-looking room, my head aching horridly, pains of a violent nature in every limb, and deadly sickness at the stomach. From the latter I was in some degree relieved by a very copious vomiting. Getting out of bed, I looked out of the only window in the room, but saw nothing but the backs of old houses... At that moment I do not believe in the world there existed a more wretched creature than myself. I passed some moments in a state little short of despair; I rung a bell I found in the room for the purpose of ascertaining where I had got to and other particulars.” These lines might have come from my autobiography. Or yours. In fact they were penned by the English writer and social commentator William Hickey in 1768. His cure? Drinking “very strong coffee, proved of infinite benefit.” His contemporary, James Boswell, suffered the consequences of a terrific drinking session while staying with Mackinnon of Corry near Broadford in Skye, in September 1773, during his epic journey to Hebrides with Dr.Johnson. On this occasion, the company was drinking brandy. “I awakened at noon with a severe headache,” he writes in his Journal, “Soon afterwards, Corrie and other friends assembled around my bed. Corrie had a brandy bottle and glasses with him and insisted that I should take a dram ... I took my host’s advice and drunk some brandy, which I found an effectual cure for my headache.” A contemporary head-barman, Adam Heiron of the fashionable Atlantic Bar and Grill in London, England, combines both Hickey and Boswell’s remedies and adds a third ingredient: “coffee, orange juice and ice-cold Jagermeister has kept me partying non-stop for 10 days.” Keith Flyd, a well-known TV chef and bon viveur, swears by “Two handfuls of crashed ice in a glass of tinned beef consommé. And a shot of vodka, the juice of one lemon, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, a dash of Tabasco, 1 teaspoon of horseradish and the yolk of an egg. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. The effect is quite bracing, but not for the squeamish.” This bears a resemblance to the classic pick-me-up, the Prairie Oyster invented during Prohibition, when bootleg grog wrought a terrible revenge the morning after. Here is a recipe from 1948, by David Amber, ‘the Escoffier of cocktail barmen’: “equal measures of cognac, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, catsup, and angostura. Drop an egg yolk in the center, add a dash of cayenne. Swallow without breaking the egg.” I recently made and drank this concoction on a television program. It tasted surprisingly good, although I spilled some down my tie while gagging on the egg! To understand the thinking behind these traditional cures we must look more closely at the affects of alcohol. There are six, with side affects. First, dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic (it makes you pee), and dehydration lies behind many of the symptoms of hangover. It is countered by drinking water, lots of it. Before, during and after imbibing. It would be contrary to immemorial custom - and wimpish - for the librarian to lay on jugs of water in the library, but members would be well advised to drink as much water as they can before going to bed. And when they awaken at the call of Nature in the early dawn, to drink more. Second, headache. Alcohol goes quickly to the head, where it cheerfully anaesthetizes first the inhibitory and later the motor centers of the brain. It also stimulates increased cardiac output, which rises blood pressure, causing the brain to swell. Both these cause headaches, which are alleviated by swallowing a couple of analgesics (i.e. painkillers) such as aspirin, codeine, or acetaminophen. I once met a Norwegian physician who had discovered a miraculous hangover cure used by the Lapps, made by drawing off sap from certain northern willows. Chemical analysis revealed that the active ingredients in this sap was...aspirin. Third, fatigue. Alcohol is both a stimulant and sedative. On the one hand it stimulates the production of insulin which reduces blood sugar and causes drowsiness. On the other, the anesthetic affect I have already touched on gives rise to a form of mild paralysis, leading to stumbling and falling about. To compensate for this the nervous system goes into over-drive, which makes for broken sleep, photophobia (‘shrinking from light’), ligyrophobia (‘an aversion for loud noises’) and tremor (‘involuntary agitation’). First, it is necessary to replace your lost blood sugar. This is where ‘Scotland’s other national drink,’ Irn Bru (pronounced aptly as ‘Iron Brew’, comes in. A glass of water with sugar dissolved in it, or sweet cups of tea, will also do the trick. Bananas are good, since they are high in fructose (fruit sugar) and also settle the liver. Tiredness is ideally overcome by more sleep, but for many of us this is impossible, and we are forced to rely on stimulants like black coffee to keep us awake. Fourth, nausea. Stomach acidity increases dramatically when tummies are filled with alcohol. This causes irritation, and to counter this the stomach produces mucous, which in its turn leads to vomiting. Increased acidity also causes the valve which connects the stomach to the small intestine (called the pylorus) to go into spasm and close down. The alcohol is then trapped in the stomach, and mucous flows: a vicious circle. Stomach acidity is reduced by alkaline solutions like Alka-Seltzer, Bisodol, or bicarbonate of soda. Milk, yogurt, or olive oil soothe the irritated stomach lining. Food before drinking, or during, also lines the stomach, keeping the valve operating. A wonder-drug called Maxolon relaxes the pylorus scientifically, and allows the stomach, filled with the poisons you have imbibed, to pass on and be evacuated. As an alternative, you might choose to follow the Roman custom to eat a plate of boiled cabbage before retiring to bed. Cabbage is in face a ‘chelator,’ a substance which amalgamates with others - including alcohol - and carries them out of the body. The ancients were not daft. The fifth symptom: liverish. All this time your liver, whose job it is to break down the alcohol, is working overtime. But work though it does, it can only metabolize alcohol at the rate of about 10 mls per hour. The following morning the tired old liver can be revived by large doses of Vitamin C - orange juice is good, but a 1000 ml tablet of effervescent Vitamin C is more realistic. Vitamin B is also invaluable here. Sixth: those familiar feelings of remorse, anxiety, and guilt. John Kears wrote sadly: ‘Wine is only sweet to happy men’ and recent medical research indicates that psychosocial factors such as guilt about drinking, a neurotic personality, or ‘negative life events’ are better predictors of hangover than the amount of alcohol consumed. Guilt is often related to what one did or said during intoxication. It is sometimes difficult to remember such things, which can lead to confusion and dread. The famous English author, Sir Kingsley Amis, recommended ‘vigorous sex’ as a hangover cure - although he goes on to observe that this should be with ‘an appropriate partner,’ or the guilt will be compounded. There is no doubt that exercise, massage and sauna baths are all good cures, if you are up to it. ‘Heart starters’, if you like; also they sweat out some of the toxins still harbored by the poor body. Even a hot bath or a wet shave - preferably being shaved by a barber, with hot towels and eau de Cologne - perform a similar function. This introduces a group of remedies especially useful in allaying the psychological aspects of hangover, which might accurately be referred to as ‘comfort factors.’ Many popular cures actually fall into this category, although most have some dim physiological foundation. For example, I am told that Australians swear by a greasy hamburger or meat pie smothered in ketchup and washed down with tomato juice. The Austrians prefer sauerkraut and sausages, the Germans soused herrings and Pils; the Irish, predictably, oysters and Guinness. The novelist Alistair Maclean liked kippers marinated in lemon juice; the wine writer, Andre Simon, raw herrings, onions, and sour cream. Some feel better for a full breakfast of eggs and bacon, toast, and marmalade. In my experience, this often seems like a good idea, when one wakes up hung-over in a hotel, but invariably turns out not to be. The most civilized ‘comfort cure’ I have heard of is half a pint of Buck’s Fizz, accompanied by a plate of very hot fingers of French toast dipped in yolk of egg, anchovy essence, and cayenne pepper, and lightly fried in butter. These should be eaten alone, in subdued light, with a choral Mass on the stereo, while reclining on a chaise longue after a hot bath. The Hair of the Dog You may have noticed that many of the hangover cures I have mentioned recommend a further intake of alcohol the morning after. The ‘hair of the dog,’ first remarked upon by Antiphanes in 479 BC. Surely this merely delays the evil effects of drink? A recent article in the British Medical Journal (4 January 1997, by Dr. Ian Calder) reveals that ethanol (pure ethyl alcohol, that which makes us drunk) may play only a minor role in producing the symptoms of hangover. He points out that hangovers are worst when almost all ethanol has been cleared from the blood - the familiar experience of wakening up feeling not too bad and then feeling ghastly by the end of the morning. Doctors now believe that the real causes of hangovers are ‘congeners’ - the complex organic compounds which lend aroma and flavor to alcohol, rather than ethanol itself. Congeners also lend color, which is why one feels worse after a night on brandy, port, red wine, or whisk(e)y (in descending order of severity) than when drinking white wine, gin, or vodka. Far and away the worst of the many congeners present in alcohol, albeit in minute quantities, is methanol. Also called “wood alcohol,’ this is poisonous in even small doses. My father, a ship’s surgeon during World War II, was called to a captured U-boat at Rosyth, near Edinburgh, during Christmas 1945. The sailors, who had not yet been repatriated, had been making ‘schnappes’ by crudely distilling torpedo-tube cleaning fluid. By the time he arrived three were dead and six blind. The distillate was methyl, not ethyl, alcohol. The quantity of methanol in a normal alcoholic drink is minuscule, but medical scientists believe that this tiny amount, metabolized into formaldehyde and formic acid, is the principal cause of the hangover.(Jones, A.W.: Elimination half-life of methanol during hangover; 1987). And the cure for this? You guessed it; a small dose of ethanol the following morning blocks the formation of formaldehyde and formic acid, and thus, in the words of the BMJ ‘provides an effective treatment for hangovers.’ In conclusion, however, I must sound a note of caution. Alcohol (i.e. ethanol and methanol) is by no means the only contributor to the hangover. Many other factors play a part - lack of sleep, over-eating, smoking, emotional disturbances, and intellectual stimulation, for example. In fact, so many factors are involved that a universally effective treatment is probably impossible. The experts argue that it is also undesirable, since the fear of hangover prompts some of us to moderate our alcoholic intake. The argument runs that, since even moderate amounts of alcohol can be damaging, a penalty for consumption is in our interests. Who am I to suggest otherwise?

How to avoid a hangover and cures, if you fail!

What alcohol does to you and What causes a hangover …

It is perhaps a very stupid thing to ask anybody how it feels when you have a hangover but the fact is that many of us don’t really know what exactly a hangover is.
A hangover is before anything else the aftermath of consuming alcohol.
After you ingest alcohol, your body breaks it down into (among other things) acetaldehyde, before converting it into less harmful substances. At the same time a host of depleted minerals are short-circuiting your nervous system, and that's in addition to the classic headache-and-dry-mouth symptoms caused by dehydration. The result: nausea, twitchy nerves, unpleasantness, pessimism, terrible brain pain, and a temporary suspension of the laws of gravity (also incapability of sustaining erections.) This is caused due to the acetaldehyde’s reaction with the nerve cells of the brain which then send confused signals to the rest of the body doubled with a lazy, more laid back attitude of the person. This is how we get the relaxing feeling once we have alcohol.

However , all alcoholic beverages which have fermented spirits in them ,contain congeners, which are small particles which emanate when grapes, apples, wheat or malt is fermented. While other products of the spirit are filtered out in the process of it becoming the wine or spirit it now is, the congeners remain due to their ability to survive and also because of their miniscule size. These congeners then cause a hangover which is nothing but a headache (sometimes even a body ache). This is because the body, built the way it is, cannot destroy these small particles. These congeners then intervene with the normal functioning of the body and hence the hangover.
How do I know if I have a hangover ? (stupid question)

A hangover is the kind of feeling one would get when he has done about 20 laps of a field in Siberia with only his boxers on . A feverish feeling along with acute backache, headache and ache in the thighs/legs are the most common symptoms of a hangover. Besides these, a person would find himself groggy and wanting to go back to sleep even after what would normally be a good night’s rest. Occasionally a feeling of vomiting is also likely.

Also you would know if you have a hangover if the sight of the leftover bottle of whisky from the night before makes you feel sick.

The severity of a hangover varies according to . . .
a) The amount you've guzzled in a relative period of time. The more you drink in a short amount of time, the more you'll feel the alcohol.
b) Your own innate capacity to deal with the poisons (if we choose to call them that) eg. the less you weigh, the more you'll feel it.
c) Your age .The older you get, the more you'll feel the alcohol the next morning.
Now that we know what exactly the alcohol does to your body we might as well settle down and see what we, as mere mortals can do about it (believe us there is a lot).

Preventing Hangovers

What to do before you go for the night out, the actual act, and the morning after..

1) Stuff yourself a bit before you take the drinks heavy. Launch your night at the pub with a double order of French fries or a Hamburger. The moderating effect this will have on the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream in the short term may be more important than the clogged arteries in the long term. The reason that food is so important is because it'll soak up the alcohol so that it doesn't all go directly into the bloodstream.

2) Hydrate your body. Prevention is always better that the cure. Sure, you'll probably still wake up at 4 a.m. with a dry tongue and a desperate compulsion to hang your head from the side of the bed , but every glass of juice or water you force yourself to swallow now is worth two in the morning. Everyone knows that alcohol acts as a diuretic. In case that frequent hob-nobbing with the urinal didn't tip you off, more is going out than coming in and that is not a good thing at all. You need to replace that liquid. Also avoid consuming synthetic beverages like colas and other aerated drinks at this time.

3) Choose your poison carefully. There are nasty heady chemicals known to mankind called congeners, (as we talked about earlier) occurring naturally in all fermented drinks. Generally the rule is the darker the drink the more these troublemakers. So you are the least likely to get a hangover with white spirits and the most with dark rum and brandy. On a scale of least (the less likely to result in a hangover) to most (to give that head kicked in by an elephant feeling) these are:

- Vodka
- Gin
- Scotch
- Single Malts
- Brandy
- Rum

For non-spirits, the list is:

- White wine
- Beer
- Lager
- Cider
- Red wine
- Port

Also cheaper brands have more congeners. Avoid if you hate the hung-over feeling.

4) Re-hydrate your body. Once you are back home, take a leak (saves at least one nocturnal trip.) Drink what you feel would be twice the amount of liquid you just parted with .This would be unpleasant but really necessary for you to be able to go to work the next morning

5) Extremely important is to avoid painkillers or analgesics at this moment. Many people devour them as a preventive measure but the actual effect of these is exactly the opposite. All recipes and cures mentioned henceforth are strictly for the morning after.
6) The morning after. Eat your rice, grains, cereals, peas & nuts. Okay not your nuts, but the real nuts. Avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and nicotine. Also try and drink as much fresh juice as you can.

There are several things that you can put into your body to ease the pain and assist rapid recovery, including a little-known substance called cysteine. Cysteine directly counteracts the poisonous effects of acetaldehyde. However the availability of the substance in India is not something you could boast about. However if you are able to lay your hands on it take the following recipe for a sure shot cure to the worst of hangovers

1. Take 2 aspirins
2. Take 200mg cysteine (available at select drug stores)
3. Take 600mg vitamin C
4. Take 1 tablet vitamin B-complex
Sit back and watch the science of medicine at its best.


1 banana
6 large strawberries
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup orange juice
1-2 cups milk
¼ tsp. salt
dash of nutmeg powder
Mix in a blender and Drink it all up.


A drop of rose oil on the temples dilates your capillaries and boosts the blood flow to your brain. Could there be a sweeter way to ease a headache?

Hangover Cocktail.
(We take no responsibility if this makes you feel worse than you already do).

1 large can of tomato juice.
3 Tbs Vinegar.
1/2 teaspoon ajeenomoto
1 lemon.
2 pickled olives (subject to availability)
1 small portion anardana churan
4 slices of onion.
1 finely chopped garlic
3 Tbs sugar.
some chopped mint
3 Tsp capsico Sauce.
Salt and Pepper.
(makes it a helluva weird descendant of a virgin mary)

Mix ingredients in a container, allow to stand for as long as possible, preferably overnight although that means actually predicting a hangover. Which of course is impossible. Strain and Serve.


The best way however to avoid a hangover remains to stay drunk! After all that’s what we are all about. (hic..)

by Varun Cheemra