The morning after ... being stupid

It's a pronounced fork in the road we meet on the way to New Year's Eve.

One road leads to sensible alcoholic intake, with the promise of a guilt-free stroll along the Fremont cut or UW campus the morning after to celebrate the new year feeling fresh and good about life.

The other leads to the proverbial New Year's Eve binge and waking up to temporary ruination: cottonmouth, seasickness, headache and contempt for the world and oneself and maybe a burning thirst for a cup of hemlock.

Choosing the right road is difficult.

The myths

Hangover is Mother Nature's revenge. And the quest for the magic bullet to kill the ever-faithful spoilsport is never-ending.

The Assyrians mixed crushed swallow's beak with myrrh.

In Outer Mongolia, a pickled sheep's eye in a glass of tomato juice is said to be just the thing.

When in Puerto Rico, rub a lemon under your drinking arm.

In Switzerland, it's a snort of brandy with a dash of peppermint, while over in Germany, they recommend a sour herring chased by beer.

This country has given rise to an almost infinite number of cures people swear by: Bloody Marys, greasy burgers and fries, cold pizza, New England clam chowder and, of course, hair of the dog.

Scientific evidence for any hangover cure is thin. No remedy comes close to confronting a hangover the way penicillin does infection.

But there is hope: extract from the skin of the prickly pear cactus.

The facts

Last summer, researchers at Tulane University reported some success in an experiment involving 55 adult volunteers who either took the prickly pear extract or a placebo five hours before ingesting enough alcohol to produce a hangover.

The volunteers were then given a meal, driven home and checked the next day.

Those who'd taken the extract were in better shape than those who had taken the placebo.

It's possible, the researchers theorize, that the prickly pear extract helps reduce the immune system's response to congeners, a toxin produced by the fermentation process in alcoholic drinks.

While the results are interesting, the jury is still out.

Meanwhile, there are some things about hangovers and alcohol intake that can be said for sure.

Physicians say various factors play into how we handle alcohol - age, weight, and genetic disposition - but an average person can process about one drink an hour. That pace will make for a softer landing in the morning.

When people drink alcohol it's absorbed into the blood stream through the stomach lining. The blood vessels dilate, which is why we sometimes experience a warm, flushed feeling. But alcohol also depresses the central nervous system, and the initial euphoria can give way to anxious feelings, insomnia and depression.

In fact, a hangover is the effect of a mild overdose of a depressant drug in which vitamins and nutrients are flushed from our systems - our body struggles to compensate.

The cures

If we're going to drink heavily, there are steps to mitigate the consequences.

Studies indicate that the darker the drink, the bleaker the hangover. It's the cursed congeners. They're more prevalent in rum, bourbon, whisky and red wine.

Crossing over from grain to grape - whisky to red wine - will only make a bad hangover worse. Vodka, gin and white wine are more forgiving the morning after.

Eat before drinking. A full stomach slows down the effects of alcohol.

Remember, too, alcohol is a diuretic: It increases urine production and encourages dehydration. Drink plenty of nonalcoholic liquids before setting out on a sea of alcohol. Even better, quaff nonalcoholic drinks between rounds.

Some physicians recommend drinking orange juice, Gatorade or other sports drinks before falling into bed - they restore electrolytes to the system.

Coffee on a hangover is a lousy idea. It, too, is a diuretic, and compounds the dehydration.

Pain relievers like aspirin or Tylenol may increase the burden on an overworked liver - not a good idea.

Tomato juice, on the other hand, with its high salt content, can help the body retain fluids.

No magical cure

None of the palliatives cure a hangover; they only address its symptoms. If raw eggs distract from the misery, bon app├ętit - but they don't work any hangover magic.

And the prickly pear extract, if found viable, will remain just that: a palliative. A hangover isn't over until the alcohol leaves the system.

Then there is always that other fork in the road.

Mike Dillon can be reached via e-mail at needitor@nwlink.com.

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