"Drink this," says Larry as I shakily accept a glass of viscous,
mucus-colored, sulphur-scented goop. "It's the special family hangover
cure: Raw eggs, lime jello and a touch of flat Guinness. It'll fix you
right up, lad."
It doesn't, and I can't imagine that anything short of a bullet will
cure this hangover. But that's the inevitable outcome when I go
drink for drink with an Irishman.
Everybody's a hangover expert -- especially around holiday time -- and
there's no shortage of folk remedies that people swear by, with each
concoction more unpalatable than the last. So I decided to poll these
self-appointed experts, and some real experts too, in the hopes of
finding the truth about hangover cures.
Of course, we have a term for a person who has too much experience with
hangovers: an alcoholic. But even a social (albeit not particularly
sociable) drinker like the Fat Guy overdoes it once or twice every
December. As long as major corporations continue to foster the great
holiday-party tradition of free liquor, cute secretaries, horny bosses
and bad food, and as long as people are driven to drink in order to dull
the pain of awkward family gatherings, there will be overindulgence at
And on Jan. 1, 2000, we will be a hangover nation. I predict it will
take days for us to realize we celebrated the millennium a year early.
Most of us know how a hangover feels. "The taste of dead cat in your
mouth," "a stomach like a million roller coaster rides" and "like
having a spike driven between your eyes" are just a few descriptions I
heard bandied about by experienced drinkers. But what exactly is a
According to William Shoemaker, Ph.D., of the University of Connecticut
Health Center (home to the federally-funded Alcohol Research Center), a
hangover is a microcosm of addiction, withdrawal and recovery. "Just as
alcoholics have severe withdrawal reactions when they stop drinking," he
explains, "a hangover is a withdrawal reaction on a more modest scale."
In trying to find the best hangover remedies, I figured I'd talk to the
people who drink the most -- and then I'd check the science with
Shoemaker. The statistics tell us that the world leaders in alcohol
consumption per capita are France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Portugal,
Switzerland and Spain. Primarily, with the exception of Germany, these
countries are the leading per capita consumers of wine. The leading
consumers of beer are Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Denmark
and Austria. Distilled spirit consumption is highest in Germany, the
United States, Poland, Iceland, Sweden and France.
But when it comes to drunkenness (and its attendant hangovers), these
statistics don't tell the whole story. The Italians may drink a lot of
wine with meals, but as a culture they deplore drunkenness -- and
everybody knows wine isn't a real drink. Conversely, even though Finland
doesn't have particularly high per capita consumption, when the Finns go
out to drink they do it right. This is the phenomenon of so-called
"telescoped drinking," wherein people skew the statistics by spending
their weeknights sober and then binging on weekends.
Americans do their fair share of drinking too, but we don't drink like
we used to. As David F. Musto writes in Scientific American, "The young
American ship of state floated on a sea of distilled spirits." Alcohol
consumption, back in the day, was three times what it is now. But we've
been fighting our way back, with steadily increasing consumption over
the last 30 years.
There are also large parts of the world for which the statistics are
unreliable. For example, a million statisticians couldn't convince me
that the Swiss and Spanish drink more than the Russians. And don't even
get me started on the Molson-guzzling Canadians, who have somehow
managed once again to display a rosy image to the outside world (there's
nothing worse than listening to a drunk Canadian recite the who's who of
hoser comedy: "Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, John Candy -- you know,
they're all Canadians, eh?")
Still, even though they don't even make it onto the list, I firmly
believe that when it comes to drinking, you want to start your
investigation with the Irish. In my experience, mostly with
Irish-Americans (and mostly with Larry and his rugby team), these people
really know how to drink. And as any Irish-American will tell you, the
real Irish back in Ireland can drink them under the table.
The Irish-American remedies are, on the whole, certainly the most
colorful ones I heard. In each case, it was explained to me that the
concoction in question would "absorb the alcohol." In addition to
corned beef and cabbage for breakfast, my Irish friends advocate a
number of noxious blender drinks, most of which combine a protein
source (eggs, milk, canned salmon) with something sugary (chocolate
pudding, fruitcake, Jello), all mixed with a little whiskey or beer,
plus, in every case, coffee (served separately). One Irish cop adds,
"It also helps to have a trial date scheduled for the next day, so you
can sleep in the back of the courtoom."
The Germans have also impressed me as serious drinkers, and it seems
they're partial to pickled fish for the morning-after meal, including
the delicious-sounding rollmops, bismarkhering and brathering, while the
Finns -- perhaps the most worthy drinking rivals to the Germans --
prefer whole salted herring (head on) with a little warm vodka. Indeed,
most every European (both Eastern and Western) hangover remedy I heard
involves some sort of fish product, from caviar in Russia to salt cod in
Spain and Portugal, to herring, herring and more herring all over
Scandinavia and Northern Europe.
Most of my Canadian friends are in Quebec, and they're big advocates of
poutine -- the Quebec national junk food. It consists of French fries,
meat gravy and cheese curds, which are little bits of rubbery cheese
culled early on in the cheddar-making process. The curds actually
squeak when you eat them.
The stereotype is that Jews don't drink, or at least that they don't
know anything about drinking, and I certainly grew up in a family with a
"Jewish liquor cabinet" (all top-shelf liquor; all unopened). So I
searched for a subculture of booze-knowledgeable Semites and, luckily, I
didn't need to go far: My in-laws defy virtually all attempts at
categorization. One brother-in-law is a cop, the other is a Navy
reservist and my father-in-law actually knows how to fix cars (even
better, my wife hates shopping). These guys can drink, and it's no
surprise that their secret anti-hangover weapon involves preemptive
eating of pastrami. "It lines the stomach," argues my father-in-law.
"I'd never drink without it."
America is a nation of immigrants, and most of the ethnic remedies I
heard about from Americans originate in the old country. We do have one
unaffiliated group here in America, though, other than American Indians:
They're called WASPs, and they put even the Irish to shame because WASPs
don't drink beer -- they drink cocktails. And they don't eat. So it was
no surprise that my informal poll of the few WASPs who would speak to me
indicated a total lack of culinary spark. The most common answer: "Take
three aspirin and drink three big glasses of water before you go to bed.
Repeat in the morning."
Despite my best efforts, I was unable to secure the participation of the
Islamic world in my survey. The religion forbids alcohol consumption
and, although plenty of Muslims drink, it's hard to get them to
acknowledge it publicly. I have it on good authority that
yogurt plus two cloves of garlic is the Turkish remedy of choice.
The list goes on: Korean alder-and-licorice tea, Senegalese jassa (a
kind of chicken stew) and Thai "restitution soup" (basically, a noodle
soup). And then there are the little tidbits of advice: Avoid sugary
drinks, bubbly drinks and mixing drinks -- and drink lots of water.
Finally, in the true American spirit of overmedication, it was
inevitable that we'd turn to drugs to fight the effects of alcohol. The
pill known as Sob'r-K allegedly works "as a
filter taking out all the impurities in the alcohol." The Sob'r-K Web
site shows an X-marks-the-spot map of the stomach with little pills
floating around the gastrointestinal system like buried treasure. Other
popular pills include the Brazilian drug Engov, the
all-natural Nux Vomica (available in health-food stores), E-mergen-C (a
vitamin supplement), milk thistle and various herbal and aromatherapy
remedies of questionable merit.
But is there scientific support for any of these remedies? "Some of the
folk remedies may help a little," says Shoemaker, "but the factors they
address are minor compared to total alcohol consumption, which is the
primary cause of hangovers."
But what about all those carefully planned morning-after menus? "Food
does not absorb alcohol," explains Shoemaker with finality. "Consumption
of food may, however, increase metabolization, activate absorption and
increase the speed with which the body processes alcohol." So Larry's
family recipe was not entirely without merit. It had sugar and protein
to wake up my metabolism, plus a little hair of the dog to ease my
withdrawal symptoms. But I'd have been better off just to drink less.
And what of "lining your stomach" with pastrami or some other fatty
food? According to Shoemaker, it might help a little. "Drinking on an
empty stomach is the most potent way to increase blood alcohol quickly,
and the speed of consumption is related to the severity of the
Shoemaker agrees that alcohol is dehydrating. "Alcohol inhibits a
pituitary hormone called ADH -- anti-diuretic hormone -- which normally
operates on the kidneys to conserve fluid. That's why, when you drink,
you're running to the bathroom all the time and that's why your urine --
if you're not too drunk to notice -- is nearly colorless. Your body is
losing more water than it should." He doubts, however, that drinking
water before bed will do much good. "Most likely, you'll just be going
to the bathroom a lot."
Aspirin helps with headaches (although it doesn't actually do anything
about the alcohol in your system), but, according to the Columbia
University Health Service, you have to be careful because, when combined
with alcohol, too much aspirin can cause serious stomach problems.
Regarding coffee, the official position of the good doctors at Columbia
is: "With coffee, what have you got? A wide awake drunk."
As for the type of liquor having something to do with hangovers,
Shoemaker confirms that "carbonation, as in beer and champagne, does
contribute to quicker absorption." Likewise, he says, "There is at least
some data indicating that cogeners -- pharmacologically active molecules
such as methanol and butanol -- contribute to side effects.
Concentrations of cogeners are higher in whiskey, rum and brandy than
they are in, for example, vodka and gin, which are clear and filtered."
But, ultimately, the only remedies with the scientific imprimatur of the
University of Connecticut Alcohol Research Center are to drink less and to drink slower. And to
that I'd add gaining weight, because it only takes a few minutes with a
content table to see that fat guys can drink a lot more than anybody
else (more so, even, than fat girls).