HEALTH Beat after a party and too much drink? Here's how to shake off the blues

D uring this season of good cheer and abundant holiday parties, hangovers are not uncommon. And while folk remedies abound, the only things that are truly helpful in curing the misery of a hangover the morning after are time and fluid replacement, experts say.

Although the cause of a hangover is obvious, the reason behind alcohol's ability to make you feel so rotten the day after isn't as clear.

“Alcohol clearly causes hangovers, but why it causes hangovers isn't very well understood,” says Andrew Yacht, director of General Medicine and vice-chair of Medicine for Education at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City.

“Part of the suspected cause is dehydration and an electrolyte and hormonal imbalance. Some of the symptoms may be caused by low blood sugar. Or, it may be that the direct toxic effects of alcohol are causing the symptoms,” he explains.

Dehydration is probably one of the more important reasons for a hangover, says Brandon Browne, a staff physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine, Round Rock, Texas. “Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that it helps the body get rid of fluids. When you have a severe hangover, you're often severely dehydrated, and the body can't get rid of the byproducts of metabolising alcohol (metabolites). And, those metabolites are irritating.”

The type of alcohol you drink can also make a difference. “The darker the alcohol, the more potential there is for a hangover,” says Yacht.

That doesn't mean you can drink clear alcohol with impunity. “It all comes down to volume,” he cautions. No matter what the type of alcohol, if you drink too much, you will get a hangover.

Hangover symptoms are usually unmistakable, but they may include thirst, fatigue, often accompanied by an inability to sleep, weakness, headache and muscle aches, irritability, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain, dizziness, sensitivity to light and sound and decreased ability to concentrate or focus.

There are steps you can take to help lessen the chance of a hangover the next morning, says Yacht. The first is to eat a meal before you start drinking. “Food helps slow the metabolism of alcohol,” he adds.

Also, try drinking water, juice or another non-caffeinated beverage in between each alcoholic drink. Not only will this help slow your alcohol consumption, but it will also help to replace some of the lost fluids, he says.

Browne also recommends pacing yourself. “Don't drink large amounts of alcohol quickly. If you do, the liver gets slammed with alcohol and the alcohol gets absorbed more rapidly,” he says. (The general rule of thumb is one drink an hour, since that is usually all the alcohol your liver can effectively process in that time.)

So what should you do if you've already overindulged and feel like death warmed over?

Try to drink water, juice or sports beverages (they help replace lost electrolytes). The next thing to do for a hangover, says Yacht, is to treat any symptoms (headache, muscle ache) you have.

Over-the-counter hangover remedies or cures don't work, so save your money. In fact, combining alcohol with acetaminophen can seriously damage the liver.

If you can keep food down, Yacht says a good meal can help.

The one thing both experts agreed you should never do? Drink more alcohol. “The worst thing you can do is drink more alcohol. It doesn't help, and it's only enhancing the existing toxicity and making dehydration worse,” says Yacht.

The good news is that time will cure a hangover. Your symptoms will probably last between eight and 24 hours. “No matter what you do, a hangover will eventually get better,” says Yacht.