It's the busiest month on our social calendars. What can we do to ensure our revelry isn't doing more harm than good? We've rounded up our tried-and-true advice to help you understand what your hangover is, how to avoid getting one in the first place, and what you can do post-party to lessen your symptoms. You don't need to avoid the festivity of the season; just arm yourself with knowledge, and enjoy.
How Does A Hangover Work?
As a functional nutritionist, I rarely recommend alcohol as part of a health routine. However, I always tell my clients that it is unrealistic to say you'll never have a drink. Especially during certain times of the year, like the holidays, there are certainly drink choices that I recommend above others to maintain your health. But with that being said, during times that you know you'll be enjoying a few drinks, there are many natural remedies to improve your hangover symptoms.
While many of us think dehydration is to blame, there are other reasons the body feels ill after a night out. When we consume alcohol, our body metabolizes the ethanol (another word for alcohol) into acetylaldehyde via the liver. With acetylaldehyde levels are higher in the blood than usual, the body can exhibit classic hangover symptoms like nausea, vomiting, headache, and fatigue. Acetylaldehyde is also classified by the World Health Organization as a possible carcinogen—which means long-term high levels can lead to cancerous changes in the body.
Alcohol consumption can also have an impact on your pituitary gland, causing you to produce less ADH (also known as anti-diuretic hormone) and causing you to lose more fluid. This is why during your initial stages of drinking you have an increased need to urinate that often subsides after your buzz kicks in. At this point, your body begins to retain water leading to increased pressure. This causes an electrolyte imbalance in sodium and potassium levels but is also why you may experience swelling and headaches as part of your hangover.
Alcohol can also lower your body's levels of anti-inflammatory cells, specifically your natural killer cells (NK cells, for short). NK cells are important part of your immune system, which is why many people come down with a cold or flu shortly after a night of drinking or symptoms like nausea, chills, and diarrhea. Low levels of these anti-inflammatory cells may also cause an increase in joint pain and other aches.
How To "Pre-Tox" Before Drinking
Vitamin C, thiamine (vitamin B1), vitamin E, and selenium are often depleted by alcohol consumption, and raising levels of these factors may be helpful.
A chemical that neutralizes acetaldehyde, s-allyl-cysteine, is found in garlic.
3. N-acetylcysteine (NAC)
This amino acid helps to increase the master antioxidant glutathione, which is involved in alcohol metabolism.
Often depleted by alcohol use, magnesium-rich foods and supplements may help you avoid headaches.
5. Milk Thistle
Milk thistle contains sylmarin, used for liver health and to aid excretion of toxins. Sylmarin is a powerful antioxidant.
Drink as much water as the amount of alcohol you plan to drink.
How To "Detox" Your Hangover
Soak a piece of ginger in hot water and drink to help nausea and dizziness.
2. Red ginseng
In a study published earlier this year, subjects who drank alcohol along with red ginseng had lower blood levels and fewer symptoms of alcohol toxicity.
3. Prickly pear extract
Long felt to help with inflammation, studies in volunteers showed fewer symptoms and lower inflammatory markers.
4. If you can move, sweat.
A burst of exercise may help shed some toxins built up from a New Year's shindig.
The challenge of managing alcohol intake is not new. Two thousand years ago Pliny the Elder recommended fried canary and raw owl eggs for hangovers. An understanding of alcohol's metabolism has led to some progress since Pliny's day, but no doubt many will be sick January 1. Frank Sinatra was quoted as saying, "Alcohol may be man's worst enemy, but the Bible says love your enemy." I say if you can't avoid it, at least go into battle against your enemy prepared to win.
Herbal Hangover Remedies
For general hangover symptoms:
Creeping Thyme (Thymus praecox)
For a heavy-hitting herb that targets multiple hangover symptoms at once, creeping thyme is your best bet. It has a long history as both a medicinal and culinary herb in Iceland and can be conveniently used as a tea. It's a general painkiller and, according to traditional medicine, improves dizziness and headaches. Creeping thyme is also good for GI distress, and its antioxidant powers, flavonoids, and essential oils pack an extra punch.
For gastrointestinal symptoms:
Rose Bay Willow (Chamerion angustifolium)
Rose bay willow has traditionally been used to treat everything from coughs to general pains, but first and foremost it's an anti-inflammatory that works especially well in the digestive system. Rose bay willow also has a strengthening effect on the immune system, and research has shown that it has antioxidant properties.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
Meadowsweet has a long and well-documented history as a medicinal plant in northern Europe. It's one of the best Icelandic medicinal herbs for various digestive disturbances: It heals the mucus membrane of the stomach, balances gastric acid, and is used to treat indigestion, stomach pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Research on meadowsweet has shown that its anti-inflammatory and cooling properties are equal to those of conventional drugs, and it also inhibits bacteria growth and stimulates the immune system.
For mental fog & psychological hangover symptoms:
Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea)
Historically, Roseroot was believed to have powerful protective powers and was taken to help clean the kidneys, reduce swelling, and ease joint pain. Its Old Icelandic name, "svæfla," literally means "lull to sleep," so it's also good at getting you back on track after an alcohol-disrupted night of sleep.
Clinical research has been done on the efficacy of roseroot on fatigue, exhaustion, lack of concentration, work phobia, and short-term memory, all with positive results. Promising, if you don't have the luxury of spending your hangover vegging on the couch. Its bonus antioxidant and liver-protecting powers, combined with its natural protection against dryness and dehydration, make it a perfect pick for treating myriad hangover symptoms.
For inflammation, general aches, and pains:
Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris)
Self-heal is an ancient medicinal herb that’s been used for centuries throughout the world, and its name says it all. Historically, it was recommended for improving attention and concentration. One of its active constituents, salicylic acid, is the natural painkiller and anti-inflammatory from which aspirin is derived, so it’s sure to target hangover aches and pains.
White Willow (Salix spp)
Of the many varieties of willow that are used for medicinal purposes, white willow is one of the most well-known. There are ancient references to its medicinal powers, and Native Americans used it for diarrhea and pain in general. It’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and it reduces sweating. Like self-heal, willow contains salicylic acid, and it’s used both internally and externally for muscle pain.
Note: Do not take willow or self-heal if you’re allergic to aspirin or if you’re on blood-thinning medication.
For detoxing and giving your liver and kidneys a boost:
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Nettle is excellent for treating inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, and for bloating and diarrhea. It's a natural anti-anemic and a mineral-rich antioxidant and was traditionally taken as a tonic by those recuperating from illness. Today, scientific studies support its stimulating effect on the immune system. Its leaves contain biogenic amines, including serotonin, which can become depleted after drinking.
But beware: The leaves of Nettle plants have little hairs that sting and burn when touched. These hairs are destroyed by boiling or drying, so it is safe to eat boiled nettle leaves or drink tea made with the dried leaves.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Native Americans used dandelion a great deal, both as food and medicine. It was considered effective for anemia, digestive disturbances, constipation, back pain, inflamed eyes, edema, kidney disease, heartburn, and as a blood cleanser. Dandelion leaves contain large amounts of natural potassium and increase urination, thus getting toxins out of your system. Dandelion root, on the other hand, has a stimulating effect on liver and gallbladder function, and has been used to strengthen the liver after long periods of medication or alcohol use. Added bonus: it stimulates your immune system and is great for your skin.
For when you just need to call it a day and sleep it off:
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian has a long history as a medicinal herb, with sources as far back as 400 BCE documenting its sedative effects and usefulness in treating insomnia. Valerian calms the nerves without disturbing concentration, doesn’t make you sluggish, and isn’t addictive. It’s also good for muscle tension and stress headaches, and it works fast.
*General Note: Do not use herbs, either internally or externally, without first reading the comments under the heading "Warning" for each herb where applicable. Do not take larger doses than those that are recommended. If the intention is to take herbs simultaneously with medication, seek the advice of a medical herbalist before using the herbs.