Home Remedies for a Potential Hangover

By Kathleen Doheny. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Your plan was to have one cocktail, some appetizers and then head directly home. But more friends stopped by to celebrate and before you knew it, your small soiree morphed into quite the wild drinking bash for all.

You know the rest: Every time you get a hangover, you swear never to do it again. You’re not the only one: Hangovers cost the U.S. economy more than $200 billion a year, mostly in lost workplace productivity.

Because your boss may not be overly fond of your hangover sick days either, you need a pain-free primer that will help you quickly feel better.

Symptoms of hangover

You may know the feeling of a hangover all too well, but it’s important to determine whether you actually have hangover or are just overtired. Internist Sharon Orrange, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California Keck School of Medicine, says someone who is truly hung over has at least two of the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Poor sense of well-being
  • Diarrhea

Hangovers, dehydration and your immune system

The effects of a hangover, such as fuzzy thinking and concentration problems, can drag on long after you wake up with a wicked headache. Six to eight hours after the last drink, your blood alcohol level will finally be zero, depending on your body weight, says Orrange, but that’s not the end of the story.

“The average hangover lasts 24 to 48 hours after all the alcohol is out of your system,” she says.

So, what exactly is going on in your body during that time?

The headache and nausea of a hangover used to be blamed strictly on dehydration, says Orrange. In recent years, however, the reasoning has changed as researchers delve into what physiologically happens to trigger a hangover.

“A hangover is related to immune response,” Orrange says. Your immune system has an inflammatory response to excessive alcohol intake. “Dehydration is one contributor to the hangover but not the sole basis of it,” she says. Inflammation is the bad guy, and both your liver and kidneys need help detoxing after drinking too much.

How to minimize hangover symptoms

You can certainly diminish the damage of a hangover with foresight, say the experts. If you want to reduce your chances of a hangover, Orrange offers a game plan.

  • Pick your drink carefully. Darker alcoholic beverages — like whiskey and bourbon — provide worse hangovers than clear drinks like vodka, she says, citing a 2010 report in Current Drug Abuse Reviews. Heavier, darker drinks contain more congeners, substances that naturally occur with fermenting and distilling processes. Incidentally, researchers found no differences in factors such as coordination or reaction time among different types of alcoholic drinks.
  • Try prickly pear extract. This remedy has science behind it, Orrange says. In a small study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that drinkers who took 1,600 international units of the natural fruit extract five hours before drinking reduced their risk of severe hangover by half. You can buy prickly pear extract at natural health food stores.  
  • Dose up on vitamin B6. Orrange knows of just one study that claims B6 and other B vitamins can soothe symptoms of hangover, but she says taking the vitamin can’t hurt. Other herbal remedies that show promise for easing hangovers come from traditional Chinese medicine and include milk thistle tablets and burdock root, which may curb a throbbing headache.
  • Try anti-inflammatory medicines. Before bed, take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory tablets (about 400 milligrams total), such as ibuprofen or similar medicines, Orrange says. Don’t substitute acetaminophen (Tylenol) because, while it may be a fever reducer, it’s not as effective in reducing the pain linked with inflammation as the other medicines are, and it may harm your already overburdened liver.
  • Sleep. “The severity of the hangover is closely tied to your sleep pattern that night,” Orrange says. There is something to the old adage about sleeping it off. If you are able to sleep in and get more than eight hours of restorative sleep, you are going to do better, she says. “That seems obvious, but many people don’t try it.”
  • Fluids. Because dehydration plays some role in making you feel crummy, drink glasses of water, lemonade, decaf iced tea and other fluids, Orrange says.

Of course, the best way to minimize the effects of a hangover are to avoid one altogether. Drink responsibly, and if you do wake up with a hangover, make a promise not to do it again — until next year. 

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