How to Feel Better When You’re Totally Hungover

It’s the morning after a big night, and you’re plagued by a splitting headache and queasy stomach. Here’s what you need to do to feel better, fast.

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What Causes a Hangover?

“Dehydration is a major cause,” says John McNeill, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of British Columbia. Why? “Alcohol decreases the release of a hormone called antidiuretic hormone [ADH], and as a result you excrete more fluid than you have taken in.”

Another culprit is acetaldehyde, a toxic compound produced as the body breaks down alcohol. Although it’s eventually converted to acetate (a non-toxic substance), at high concentrations the process is sluggish and can cause nausea, vomiting, sweating, flushing, enlarged blood vessels (which can cause headaches), disrupted sleep (leading to fatigue) and low blood sugar (which decreases the brain’s ability to function).

Hangovers usually go away within 24 hours, but staying hydrated can speed up the process. “Before bed and when you wake up, drink a lot of fluids’especially electrolyte drinks [with sodium, potassium and other minerals],” says John Dempster, a naturopath in Toronto.

Foods that are easy to digest, such as bananas, may help settle your stomach. If you still need relief, the following over-the-counter treatments could help.

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How to Relieve a Headache

Try: Aleve, Advil and Aspirin

How they work: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications contain drugs such as naproxen sodium (Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil) or acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin), which can soothe a sore head and aching muscles. They suppress prostaglandins, the chemicals our bodies produce when we experience pain, inflammation and fever. But avoid acetaminophen, says McNeill.”Alcohol alters the way it is broken down: A toxic substance that can cause liver damage is produced, particularly if it is used frequently.”

Need to know: These are safe if you follow package directions. They may irritate the stomach if you are queasy. Take them with food.

How to Treat Nausea and Vomiting

Try: Gravol, Life Brand Anti Nauseant

How they work: Both medications contain the active ingredient dimenhydrinate, a drug that blocks the nerve impulses in the vomiting centre and gastrointestinal tract to suppress nausea and vomiting.

Need to know: “If you’ve had too much to drink and experience persistent vomiting, dehydration is a danger,” says Wood. “These medications can prevent that.’ Both are safe if you follow the package directions. Wood warns that taking these before a night out is not a good idea. ‘Gravol is usually sedating,” she says, and the effect will be worsened with alcohol. Take one the following day if you are still feeling nauseous.

Natural remedies

Try: Milk thistle (available at drugstores and health food stores) and Adrena­Sense (available only at health food and specialty supplement stores)

How they work: Phase one of liver detoxification breaks down toxins like alcohol into inter­mediate compounds, while the second phase (which silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle, speeds up) encourages quicker excretion.

Milk thistle also contains vitamins B1, B6 and B12, which alcohol can deplete. Adrena­Sense contains a combination of vitamins, nutrients and botanicals that help the body’s adrenal system adapt to stress. “I recommend it because when you drink alcohol, it stresses the body,”  says Dempster.

Need to know: Check with your doctor before taking any herbal supplements, and always follow package directions.

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Hangover Cures That Don’t Work

  • ‘Hair of the dog.’ It’s a myth. Trying to prevent or kill a hangover by drinking alcohol only delays the inevitable in a few hours, says Wood.
  • Caffeine. Although it can relieve a headache, caffeine can also irritate an upset stomach and will prevent you from catching up on needed sleep.
  • A greasy breakfast. Alcohol throws off blood sugar levels, so although you crave fats, carbs and sugars, they’ll only further spike your insulin and make you feel worse.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada