Hungover: Students and experts discuss hangover remedies

Aspirin and a bottle of water. Throwing back one last shot immediately upon waking up. Gatorade. A cold shower. Bread. Lots and lots of bread.

What’s your solution for the common hangover?

For better or worse, alcohol has become integrated into the culture of college students. According a Harvard University study conducted in 2001, nearly 44 percent of underage college students were classified as binge drinkers – that is, someone who engages in heavy episodic drinking. Social games such as Beirut, speed quarters, Kings and Asshole often lead to binge drinking, which can leave a student with an unpleasant surprise the next morning.

But even mild consumption of alcohol has a way of plaguing hard partiers when they wake up. Headaches, drowsiness and nausea can be routine on the Sunday mornings of even relatively light drinkers. But remedies to hangovers are commonplace and range from household varieties to medicines with roots in modern science.

“When you drink alcohol, the body treats it like food,” said Daniel Z. Lieberman, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the GW Hospital. “(Your body) uses chemicals from the liver to break down the alcohol and extract energy from it.”

Lieberman said the nausea, dizziness and headaches result from a combination of two factors. The first is the buildup of acetaldehyde, a metabolite left over from the liver breaking down the alcohol. The second is the effect of alcohol as a sedative, which slows down many parts of the brain, resulting in slow reflexes and stumbling.

Lieberman said the body must adjust to these changes and the increased levels of acetaldehyde. When the body experiences withdrawal, as in the morning after drinking, “the body is still trying to overcome these sedative effects,” Lieberman said. He added that the over compensation results in “hyperirritability.”

While most students might not know the chemical reactions taking place in the body that cause hangovers, one student has simplified his understanding of drinking illness.

“The hangover is essentially dehydration,” senior Kyle Nicholson said. “Drink lots of water the night before, but there’s really no way to avoid hangovers.”

But there might be more to the cure-all remedy for hangovers than simply replacing a beer for a glass (or several glasses) of water.

A study published in the July Archives of Internal Medicine found that an extract from the prickly pear cactus lowers the occurrence of “severe hangovers” in test subjects.

Sophomore Patrick Withers said he considers an effective hangover treatment a worthy purchase.

“I get bad headaches with just a few shots of vodka, so I’d be interested in any chance to alleviate them,” he said.

Lieberman said the study has validity.

“The chemical in prickly pear is extracted and purified,” he said. “The chemical breaks down acetaldehyde more quickly.”

Prickly pear cactus makes the list of ingredients on the Chaser pill, which promises “freedom from hangovers.” So if scientific journals are to be trusted, the pills pushed by unconvincing actors in daytime television commercials may actually have some credibility. But unfortunately for GW students, they cannot be found in Foggy Bottom – or, for that matter, in any of Northwest D.C.

Living Essentials, the company that produces Chaser, blames a corporate mix-up, which ironically resulted from Chaser’s popularity. When Chaser began to outsell competing brands, CVS corporate headquarters decided to remove competing products from its shelves.

“CVS sent a letter to its stores that said to ‘please discontinue your hangover products’ when it meant to discontinue other hangover products,” said Ris? Meguiar, U.S. sales representative for Living Essentials. “So maybe those stores discontinued all of their hangover products by mistake.”

Thanks to the poorly worded memo, GW students must venture outside the city or purchase the pills online. They go for about seven dollars for two evenings’ worth.

But the most popular remedies seem to come from personal experience and experimentation.

“Vodka is definitely the easiest to come down from,” Nicholson said. “Drink some vodka and go for a swim the next morning, and you’ll be fine.”

And although it sounds like the last possible solution, others also recommended to keep drinking.

“People like to get Bloody Marys,” said Jamie Daggon, a 2004 GW graduate who is now a bartender at nearby Lindy’s Red Lion. “And we have a lot of greasy food here. Greasy food helps, too.”

“Then there’s always the old aspirin and water people take the next morning,” she added.

Nicholson said aspirin mitigates the morning pain from a wild night, but he also warned against the mixing of medicines.

“In my experience, what I like to do is pop two Advils and go back to sleep, but I wouldn’t recommend that because it makes a reaction that’s bad for the liver,” he said.

Daggon and Nicholson both said hangover solutions vary depending on which type of alcohol one consumes the night before.

“If you’re drinking a mixed drink, drink some juice from that drink the next morning and that’ll cure it,” Daggon said.

Lieberman said there are chemical reasons for the different effects of various alcoholic beverages based on the rapid increase of alcohol on the brain. But he added that there is simpler reasoning.

“Drinks with higher alcohol content … like shooters … make you drink more of it. Beer is more filling,” he said. Therefore, he said a drinker will not consume as much alcohol with beer since they are drinking less.

Sometimes the best way to escape from a hangover is to let nature take its course.

“The worst thing is when you have a splitting headache that comes every time your heart beats, and you know the only way to feel better is to throw up,” said Stewart Schulze, a government construction worker who was sitting at the bar in Lindy’s along with Nicholson last week.

“Don’t throw up unless you do it in the toilet,” Nicholson was quick to add. “I don’t want to see it anywhere else.”

Sophomore Steve Rogers remembers a time during his freshman year when a roommate could not make it to the bathroom in their Hall on Virginia Avenue residence.

“Our room reeked so badly that people avoided being in the hallway near the door to the room,” he said.

But GW students said they are resilient people who would never let a harsh headache or even a little nausea spoil a good time.

“I really just want everyone to continue to party,” Nicholson said. “Not in an Animal House sense, but to get work done and have a good time.”

-Andrea Nurko contributed to this report.

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