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The best way to get rid of a hangover

Prevention might well be better than cure when it comes to drinking too much alcohol, 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 feeling awful.

In the UK, like so many countries, life, death and everything in-between are often observed with alcohol. So hangovers have become part of the culture.

We turn our hangovers into funny stories, invent crazy cures for them - egg drop soup, anyone? - and even celebrate them in song and in books.

Yet when it comes to your physical and emotional health, hangovers - and the drinking too much that precedes them - are no laughing matter.

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What causes a hangover?

The main cause of a hangover is ethanol - the pure alcohol in drinks. This toxic chemical that works as a diuretic, making you pee 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.

In addition to a headache, nausea, tiredness and dehydration, hangovers can also leave people struggling to concentrate, feeling irritable and sensitive to light.

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. These are 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 treat your hangover symptoms.

First of all, be aware of the hangover cure myths. 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. It's 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.

GP Dr Clare Morrison says: "The most important issue is hydration, so do drink some water or fresh fruit juice. 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."

There is no evidence 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, 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 8 and 24 hours to recover, so be prepared to wait it out.

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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.

Too much alcoho 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.

Morrison has had first-hand experience of the devastating effects of alcoholism 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.

It can take some willpower, but it is possible to reverse your reliance on alcohol. The experts share their advice:

  • Thinking 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."

  • Starting with several drink-free days each week - if stopping altogether seems daunting at first.

  • Stopping altogether and seeking advice from a doctor or an organisation such as Alcoholics Anonymous - if drinking has become a serious problem, or is linked to mental health issues. "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." says Morrison. "And if someone is anxious, depressed or can't sleep, they may also need treatment for this - perhaps medication or cognitive behavioural therapy."

  • Accepting the support of friends and family - and if needed of support groups and medical professionals.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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