How to drink sensibly over the festive season
Prevention might well be better than cure when it comes to excessive alcohol consumption, but what if it's too late for that? We ask the experts exactly what happens to your body when you're hungover, offer practical steps to ease your symptoms and reveal how to stop history repeating itself.
Headache, nausea, anxiety, bottomless thirst, junk food cravings. Whole days lost to self-loathing.
In the UK, where life, death and everything in-between are observed with alcohol, hangovers have become curiously interwoven into the social fabric, a kind of communal rites-of-passage.
We tell stories mythologising our hangovers, invent crazy cures for them (egg drop soup, anyone?), even celebrate them in song and in books.
Yet when it comes to your physical and emotional health, hangovers - and the excessive alcohol consumption that precedes them - are no laughing matter.
What causes a hangover?
Ever cursed whatever it was in last night's drinks that made you feel so dreadful?
The chief culprit is ethanol - the pure alcohol in drinks - a toxic chemical that works as a diuretic, making people urinate more and become dehydrated, one of the main causes of a hangover.
One 10 ml unit of alcohol contains 8 g of ethanol. The UK Chief Medical Officer advises that men and women should drink no more than 14 units a week, ideally spread evenly over three or more days.
Binge drinking is even more harmful than regular alcohol intake since higher levels of alcohol are in the body at one time, leading to more toxicity.
There is also a higher level of acetaldehyde, a chemical made from alcohol during the breakdown process. Even more toxic than alcohol itself, acetaldehyde is responsible for many hangover symptoms.
As for the centuries-old debate as to which alcoholic drinks cause the worst hangovers, best avoid bourbon, rum and red wine as these all contain chemicals called congeners, by-products of fermentation, which cause toxic effects in their own right.
Top tips for the morning after
Prevention may be better than cure, but if you have over-indulged then there are ways to restore your equilibrium.
First of all, eschew hair of the dog or the multitude of other bogus cures. It isn't a good idea to drink more alcohol the following morning - in fact it's best to avoid it completely for a few days to give your liver and brain a chance to recover. Best to try to avoid painkillers as well; aspirin and ibuprofen can further irritate a tender tummy, and paracetamol can put a strain on your (already overworked) liver.
"The most important issue is hydration, so do drink some water or fresh fruit juice," advises GP Dr Clare Morrison. "You may also be short of essential vitamins and minerals. As well as a healthy breakfast with fruit, grains and protein, consider taking a multivitamin supplement. To replace potassium, bananas are a good source."
That said, there is no evidence whatsoever that the celebrity favourite IV vitamin drip will help you avoid or get over a hangover.
"Mineral loss can also be overcome by eating soup, eggs, nuts, or even a rehydration sachet, while nausea can be alleviated by eating ginger," adds Dr Morrison.
Because alcohol tends to cause restless sleep once the initial sedation has worn off, you will benefit from going back to bed for a while. More than anything, though, the main way to recover from a hangover is time. It takes between eight and 24 hours to recover, so be prepared to wait it out.
The effects of excessive drinking
Excessive drinking and hangovers are associated with everything from liver disease, depression and cancer (particularly of throat, oesophagus, mouth, breast, bowel and liver) to pancreatitis, strokes and heart disease.
Take a walk down any high street on a Friday night and you'll see that alcohol consumption can also lead to risk-taking behaviour, resulting in accidents, fights and unsafe sex. If a woman drinks heavily during pregnancy, the child may be born with fetal alcohol syndrome, behavioural problems and facial deformity.
Excessive drinking is also no respecter of gender or social status. Morrison has had first-hand experience of the devastating toll alcoholism can take on health and personal relationships.
"I often see alcoholics during the course of my work as a GP - sadly, many of these are young women," she says. "They are often very pleasant people who suffer from low self-esteem.
"I can think of one woman, who lost her husband, young children, job, home and health because of her uncontrolled drinking. It ruined her life for several years. However, with support and treatment, I'm pleased to say that she did eventually manage to stop drinking and get her life back on track."
Worried about your drinking? Here's how to cut down
If you drink alcohol regularly - for example, to relax and de-stress after work - it is easy to build up a tolerance; before long, you may feel anxious, jittery, or be unable to sleep if you don't have a drink.
The good news, however, is that with willpower and the support of friends, family (and, if required, support groups and medical professionals) a life free from alcohol reliance is eminently possible.
If stopping altogether seems daunting at first then start with several drink-free days each week.
"Think about how much you drink during the week - there are a number of tools that can help you, such as the DrinkCompare Calculator or the Drinkaware App," says Dr John Larsen, director of evidence and impact at Drinkaware.
"You will then find out the extent to which your drinking may be harmful to you and consider the potential benefits of cutting down. The list is long, but includes improved sleep, losing weight, better mental well-being, reduced risk of injury and better long-term health."
If drinking has become a serious problem, or is linked to mental health issues, Morrison generally advises that person should stop drinking altogether and seek advice from a doctor or an organisation such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
"After one drink, motivation generally disappears, so best not to drink at all," she says. "However, sometimes it's not safe to stop suddenly - for example, if the patient is at risk of seizures - and they may need help from a specialist centre, and perhaps a 'detox'.
"And if someone is anxious, depressed or can't sleep, they may also need treatment for this - perhaps medication or cognitive behavioural therapy," she adds.