Secrets of the hangover whisperer: how to cure and avoid them

A holiday dinner with wineglasses raised over the table Photo by Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

The holiday season is upon us, meaning entertaining and parties and New Year’s Eve just around the corner. So we thought we’d explore that perennial topic: the hangover and what to do about it. Christine Sismondo caught up with Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, the author of Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure ($30, Penguin Random House), the day after his book launch.  

CS: Given that last night was a big night, I have to ask, are you hungover right now?

SBS: To tell you the truth, I got to bed around noon, and I only slept for about an hour, but I’m not as hungover as I should be.

CS: But, if you were, would that be a Bloody Mary or Caesar then? Are those really cures?  

SBS: I used to think it was just a slippery slope, like, how many hair of the dogs does it take to start a new hangover? But there is some scientific backing to it since, when you break down alcohol, first you break down the ethanol, which is the good stuff, and then your body starts to break down the methanol, a nasty by-product of booze, by turning it into formaldehyde, which makes you extremely toxic. By reintroducing a little bit of that ethyl alcohol with just one drink, you can stop the body from breaking down the methanol. So, as long as you can sort of control it, and only have one drink or so, there is reasoning to it—as long as it’s not too much.

CS: In your research, what’s the most surprising thing you learned?

SBS: One of the most interesting things I discovered by happenstance. I’ll say “discovered”—but it’s really probably more of a theory than a discovery—was when I went down to Las Vegas to test this IV drip treatment called Hangover Heaven. To test it after the treatment, I did all these things that you’d never want to do with a hangover, like jumping off the Stratosphere, which is the highest free fall in the world. And one of the things I discovered was that the dose of adrenaline I got from jumping off that building seemed to just blast the hangover out of me.

So I followed that up with other experiments and I have found that if you get sort of that fight-or-flight mechanism going, with things like jumping into freezing water, it seems to sort of almost reboot your system.

CS: What’s the worst thing you ever tried?

SBS: Well, one particular Christmas, I decided to try the old Victorian Chimney Sweep cure, which was to mix a spoonful of soot from the fireplace into a warm cup of eggnog and drink it down before imbibing. That actually didn’t go that badly. I mean, it turned my teeth purple but it didn’t taste that bad and I think if I had just left it there and just gone ahead and enjoyed my Christmas, I might have been okay. But, instead, I decided to mix that particular folkloric remedy with a Mediterranean one, where you drink a glass of olive oil to coat your stomach. I think that combining those two remedies was a very bad idea. For whatever reason, it caused some sort of implosion in my system, and I had, possibly, the worst Boxing Day in history.

CS: I have my own hangover cure that I start the night before by taking Advil and a B-12 vitamin. That usually mitigates it but, if I still feel bad in the morning, I have a Coke, a little coffee ice cream, and a nap. Then I’m fine.

SBS: B-12 is good and the Advil’s good too, because it’s an anti-inflammatory and when your immune system kicks in to the degree that it does with a hangover, all of the cells in your body become inflamed and your organs go rigid, which is why you can’t really solve it with a glass of water because your cells won’t absorb the water. Some people add a B-1, a B-6, some complex magnesium, and something called N-acetyl-L-cysteine, which is an amino acid supplement that creates glutathione in your body, which is probably the “magical” thing that will actually stop your body from starting a hangover.

CS: So, prevention is key?

SBS:  Yes, vitamins and Advil only work if you take it before you go to sleep. Once the mechanism of the hangover begins, it’s very hard to stop it.

CS: So there’s really nothing we can do the next day?

SBS: Well, that nap—the second sleep—is important too, because, without getting into all the science of it, as the alcohol leaves your system, the body kind of goes into hyperdrive, which is why you’ll either wake up in the middle of the night or just have a restless sleep. The trick is waking up and then getting back to sleep. For most of history, humans slept in two sleeps, and I think that’s one of the reasons that hangovers didn’t become an issue until the modern era. I think that the first sleep was sort of sleeping off the drink, and then you’d wake up and do things for a while. Then the second sleep would be the profound one.

CS: What’s the silliest cure you’ve ever heard of?

SBS: One of the weirdest is in Puerto Rico, where, traditionally, they put a wedge of lemon in their armpits. That’s a weird one.

CS: Did you ever try that?

SBS: No, never did. Maybe I should today.


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