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Expert: No relief but time for too much revelry

Thursday, January 1, 2009
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Lewis "John" Riccitello fills a drink order at John Riccitello Restaurant on New Year's Eve.
Photographer: Ana Zangroniz
Lewis "John" Riccitello fills a drink order at John Riccitello Restaurant on New Year's Eve.

— John Riccitello, owner and bartender of John Riccitello Restaurant in Schenectady, says his customers tell him a mixture of beer and tomato juice will cure a hangover.

“They call it the Alaskan Red Eye,” says Riccitello. “You get a good-sized glass, fill it part way with tomato juice and then add beer to it.

“The serious drinkers say they never get a hangover because they stay drunk all the time,” he adds. “But most of my customers say, if you want to play you gotta pay.”

Your head aches. Your stomach is queasy. You are sweating, tired, and your mouth is as dry as the Sahara.

You’ve got a hangover, a complicated mix of symptoms that can’t be cured by aspirin, water or other traditional remedies, said Russell Mankes, a toxicologist at Albany Medical Center Hospital.

“The hangover is your body’s way of trying to get rid of the alcohol,” said Mankes. “Hangovers are essentially the first sign of withdrawal from alcohol from over imbibing.”

The headache, upset stomach, dehydration and dry, metallic taste in your mouth that lasts up to 24 hours, is caused by a toxic by-product of alcohol called acetaldehyde, said Mankes.

“When you drink the alcohol,

it’s metabolized in the liver into acetaldehyde, and that’s what gives you your headache,” Mankes explained.

Part of that miserable feeling is also because of withdrawal symptoms.

“Alcohol very rapidly causes drug dependence,” said Mankes. “The hangover is the first step in the process toward dependence, and alcohol is one of the few substances where withdrawal can cause death.”

Alcohol also causes severe stomach irritation.

“One of the things alcohol does is cause the inside of your stomach to become very raw, and inflamed,” said Mankes. “If you have an underlying gastrointestinal problem such as an ulcer, the over imbibing of alcohol can actually cause a perforation.”

Taking aspirin or ibuprofen to help a headache will only add to the stomach irritation, and could increase the chance of developing an ulcer.

While acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) may not harm the stomach, it will put further strain on the liver, which is already being damaged by the alcohol.

While drinking more alcohol, such as a Bloody Mary, will immediately relieve symptoms, Mankes said drinking more alcohol is not a good idea.

“Your symptoms may be relieved by the ‘hair of the dog,’ but that’s your first step on the way to addiction,” Mankes explained.

The best way to avoid getting a hangover is to drink moderately or not drink at all, said Mankes.

“There is nothing wrong with having a small amount of alcohol with a meal or drinking in moderation,” he said. “But the best and only way to avoid a hangover is to not overindulge.”

If you drink enough to become inebriated, you will suffer the consequences, and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it, except wait it out, said Mankes.

Rehydrating yourself with a sports drink such as Gatorade to replenish your electrolytes and eating something bland like oatmeal, may help symptoms slightly. But the only real cure for a hangover is time, said Mankes.

Some people say drinking coffee helps a hangover, but Mankes said all coffee will do is make you feel wide awake.

“Coffee tends to cause even greater dehydration because caffeine has a diuretic effect,” said Mankes. “So you will be losing more water and become even more dehydrated. If you want something warm, milk would be better for you.”

Eating fatty foods is another bad idea.

“All fatty foods will do is slow down the emptying of the stomach, so the alcohol doesn’t get into your bloodstream as quickly,” said Mankes. “So instead of feeling the effects at 9 p.m., you feel them at 11 p.m. It’s the same intensity. It won’t do anything to stop the hangover.”

What will help is vigorous exercise like running.

“Your muscles tend to burn up a lot of the acetaldehyde and other chemicals that are floating around and making you feel ill,” said Mankes. “If you lead a sedentary lifestyle, this is not the day to go out and run a marathon. But if you are in reasonable health, and exercise is part of your normal routine, then it will help terminate the effects of the hangover.”

The severity of hangovers varies between men and women. Women tend to develop much higher blood alcohol levels faster because they lack an enzyme in their stomachs that men have, said Mankes.

“If you reach a higher blood alcohol level, you will produce more acetaldehyde and have more of a hangover effect,” he explained. “Also women tend to be smaller and have more of a diuretic effect then men.”

Women of child-bearing age should not drink at all, said Mankes. “They could be pregnant and not know it, and one night out can produce birth defects in a child,” he said.

The type of alcohol you drink will also affect your hangover. Hard liquor is much more concentrated, so your alcohol levels will be higher with straight whiskey than with beer or wine, said Mankes.

“If you find yourself with a hangover, keep yourself hydrated with Gatorade or some kind of sports drink, exercise if you are in reasonable shape, or just roll over and go back to bed,” said Mankes.

 
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