THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


THE SCIENCE OF HANGOVERS

by by Erin Schikowski

illustration by by Zoe Brooks

SCIENCE.Hangovers.ZoeBrooks.png
So you've woken up 'in bits,' as they say, and it's just not one of those hangovers you can pretend to cure with a cold shower, a carb-castle stack of pancakes from Louis, or a cup of the strongest coffee around.
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Author of The Electric-Kool-Aid Acid Test Tom Wolfe once described the feeling of a hangover thus: "The membranous sac was his head, and the right side of his head was on the pillow, and the yolk was as heavy as mercury.... If he tried to get up to answer the telephone, the yolk, the mercury, the poisoned mass, would shift and roll and rupture the sac, and his brains would fall out." Classy, huh? Tom Wolfe, yes, but membranous brain-sack hangovers? Definitely not.

For such an unpleasant and common ailment, it is surprising that there is still no effective cure. But hangovers are more than just temporary annoyances in the lives of college students and chronic alcoholics. Reuters reports that hangover symptoms--headache, fatigue, dehydration, sensitivity to light and noise--result in an annual loss of $158 million, due to employee absenteeism in the workplace.

The Texas red-beer 'Slurp and Burp'
Medical experts do not agree on what exactly happens in the body to cause a hangover after a night of excessive drinking. There are several factors known to be at least partly responsible, though. Physiologically, hangovers are significantly worse if the person does not stay well hydrated while drinking and, more importantly, after drinking as he or she is beginning to sober up.

According to Columbia University's Health Q&A Internet Service, an adult's liver can process about one drink per hour (meaning 12oz of beer, about half a cup of wine, or a 1.5oz shot of hard liquor). When the body first starts to process alcohol, the pituitary gland in the brain releases a chemical that halts the creation of vasopressin, a hormone responsible for regulating the body's ability to retain water. Without vasopressin, the kidney directs water straight to the bladder instead of sending it back into other various body tissues. According to the layman's medical section of the website health.howstuffworks.com, "drinking about 250 milliliters of an alcoholic beverage causes the body to expel 800 to 1,000 milliliters of water; that's four times as much liquid lost as gained." Hence the ominous dehydration known to exacerbate the next morning's raging headache and general exhaustion.

But dehydration is just one of the (medical) reasons why you might wake up rgretting your throbbing head. Congeners are natural toxins which are produced as byproducts of the fermentation process of alcohol and are also thought to be causally linked to hangovers. Darker alcohols like red wine, whiskey and tequila contain more congeners than lighter alcohols like vodka or rum. Excessive drinking also causes blood vessels in the brain to become dilated, which contributes to the hangover headache.

Gatorade and other drinks containing electrolytes and sugar can be helpful after a night of heavy drinking because they speed up the process of rehydration. Coffee, by contrast, is a diuretic and though it increases mental acuity, it does not help with rehydration. If coffee does seem to abate hangover side effects, it is only because the hangoveree a) decides to chase her coffee with twice as much water or b) because the caffeine constricts the enlarged and thumping blood vessels in the brain. Some also swear vitamin B12 helps ameliorate a hangover because the body uses B12 in the process of breaking down ethanol. Note, however, that we still do not have an instant cure.

Highest creative props go to remedies such as the Texas red-beer 'Slurp and Burp' cure. Red beer is made by combining equal parts beer and tomato juice with a dash of lime and is thought to help with a nasty hangover when sipped on the morning after. Kombucha is another fabled cure; a mix of tea and solid bits of microorganisms, including the yeast species Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Candida stellatas, this drink is available at health food stores like Whole Foods and can also be cultured at home by the adventurous.

While all of these strategies may be noble and some innovative, none works perfectly. That's why there's been so much hype about the development of a potential hangover cure called Bridion--although this is not what the drug was developed for. Made by the US-based drug company Schering-Plough, Bridion (generic name Sugammadex) is the latest hope for a proven, medical hangover cure.

Putting all our yolks into one basket
While there is evidence from a number of studies that certain chemicals can help reduce an alcoholic's craving to drink, there have been far fewer studies specifically devoted to finding a medical cure for hangovers. It seems fitting that this potential hangover cure was picked up only through studies meant to serve other medical purposes.

Bridion is marketed primarily as a drug to help patients transition from a state of anesthesia-induced 'sleep' to a state of consciousness. It does this by easing the removal of muscle-relaxant chemicals from the body once a surgical procedure has been completed and the patient no longer needs anesthesia. According to the Schering-Plough website on Bridion, the drug functions like a chemical ring which "encapsulates and inactivates rocuronium or vecuronium," two active chemicals involved in neuromuscular blockade, or muscle relaxation.

The amazing thing about Bridion is the speed with which it does this. It takes four minutes or less to reverse the effects of a deep neuromuscular blockade and three minutes or less for a patient under moderate neuromuscular blockade. It works by attaching itself to specific toxins in the liver and then whisking them away within a number of minutes; three minutes is the time it takes blood to circulate once around a person's body. Although Schering-Plough is an American company, the research team that developed Bridion come from Newhouse, Lanarkshire.

In a January 4 article from The Telegraph's web edition, Alastair Jamieson explains that Bridion "could also be used as an antidote for poisons and toxins, such as snakebites and spider and insect bites, which can cause death and major illness." Another recent article from Scotland on Sunday confirms the fact that Bridion has potential for clearing other unwanted or dangerous chemicals from the liver.

Head of pharmacology at Schering-Plough Dr. David Hill told The Telegraph that "The side-effects [of Bridion] are virtually nil, you just have this fantastic reversal of the paralysis." It is unclear whether a Bridion-like drug meant to abate hangovers would be taken just after the imbiber realizes he has overdone it or hours later, once he has a full-blown hangover; given the fact that Bridion works by whisking away unwanted toxins from the liver, though, it seems like this would have to be more of a preventative hangover cure that one would take at the end of the night after having had too much to drink. Right now, a miracle hangover cure is only just at the beginning stages of speculation. Until research pronounces the hangover dead, we may all sit back and cross our fingers for those who go on to investigate Bridion's hangover potential.

We are, understandably, eager for a quick-fix solution to hangovers, but sometimes patience and common sense are the best remedies. For now, when those hangovers strike, take an Advil, drink a glass of water, and go back to bed. The evidence still suggests the best cure for a hangover is simply time and rehydration.

ERIN SCHIKOWSKI B'11 will take her eggs in a pint.