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Surprising Science

What’s the Cure for a Real-Life “Hangover”?

As The Hangover films make abundantly clear, it's not easy waking up after a night of wild partying. Folk remedies for hangovers abound, but a recently published study offers a cure with a real scientific basis. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Millions are expected to flock—or stumble—to theaters this weekend to see The Hangover: Part II, the sequel to the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time. Unlike the characters in the original, few of us will ever have to deal with roaring tigers, wailing babies, or the wrath of Mike Tyson the morning after a wild night. But many of us will share a more common problem: the hangover headache that feels as if all of the above were taking place directly inside our skulls.

The science behind hangovers has always remained murky; no single cause or cure has been definitively pinpointed, even as folk theories and remedies abound. Earlier this year, however, a study reported in New Scientist identified what may be the single most effective hangover-buster: coffee plus a dose of aspirin.

It turns out that caffeine and anti-inflammatory drugs both block some of the effects of a chemical called acetate, which researchers at Thomas Jefferson University isolated as the primary triggering mechanism behind alcohol-induced headaches in lab rats. (No, no rats got drunk in the course of the study. The animals were congenitally headache-prone, so the scientists were able to induce hangover by administering very low doses of ethanol: all of the punishment with none of the fun.)

Of course, both coffee and painkillers are popular remedies as is, but the study helps confirm their effectiveness while singling out acetate over other frequently cited hangover culprits. For example, the experiment controlled for the effects of dehydration, suggesting that while chugging water the morning after may help, it probably won’t do the trick by itself.

What’s the Significance?

Despite receiving plenty of media attention, the study is unlikely to stop people—including non-scientists—from searching for new and better cures. Big Think sought advice on this score from Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver, who also recommended “a nice big cup of coffee” while offering a secret weapon of his own: a “greasy baked-egg-and-cheese sandwich.”

As Oliver points out, it’s good to prepare these materials in advance, since “if you have a real hangover, you might not want to leave the house.” And if your house contains free-roaming tigers and babies, you might not have much time for self-treatment, either.


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