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Hangover cures don't work, but shed light on drinking habits

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AKRON, Ohio - They promise all the libationary revelry of New Year's Eve, but "No headache, no nausea, no regrets." They can "ensure that a wonderful night doesn't lead to the worst of mornings." Or to put it somewhat clinically, they'll "reduce the harmful and toxic byproducts of alcohol consumption."

They are over-the-counter hangover fixes - with clever names like RU-21, Chaser and Sober-X - and they're everywhere these days, at drugstore checkout counters, in prime-time TV commercials and, of course, on the Internet.

And guess what? They don't work.

Even if they did, Dr. Victoria Sanelli suggests that you may want to consider what it says about you and your drinking habits if you're willing to plop down $6.79 to $29.95 in an attempt to cure a problem - an avoidable one, at that - before it even appears.

"If you have to look for a hangover cure, dude, alcohol is obviously way too important for you," said Sanelli, associate medical director of the Ignatia Hall Acute Alcohol & Drug Treatment Center.

Taking a pill to prevent a hangover is a pretty good clue that you're more concerned about protecting your drinking than protecting yourself.

At its most basic, a hangover is a toxic reaction to drinking too much alcohol. (Think about it: you can't spell "intoxication" without "toxic.") Specifically, hangovers are brought on by a combination of inflammation and acetaldehyde, a "nasty little chemical that changes the pathways in your body," said Akron General Medical Center's Tim Brown, a pharmacotherapy specialist.

"It's a chemical your body doesn't want. It basically makes you sick to your stomach." It's the acetaldehyde that the hangover cures are latching onto, claiming to change the body's alcohol metabolism and blocking formation of the chemical.

"Here's the catch - even though acetaldehyde plays a role, there's no evidence that changing the way the body metabolizes alcohol or anything like this will do anything to prevent the hangover," Brown said.

Acetaldehyde is just one factor. Dehydration, mineral loss and inflammation also play key roles. Not to mention the fact that a good many hangovers can also be exacerbated by the mental stress of having done something the night before that you now regret.

"There are a number of different things going on," Brown said. "It's not just one method." Keep in mind, too, that these hangover "cures" won't keep you from getting drunk.

"No. 1, hangover or not, huge amounts of alcohol are not a good thing," Brown said. "We all know that."

But wait. Haven't scientific studies proven that alcohol is good for our hearts?

Well, yeah, Brown says, "but it's good for the heart based on about two drinks at a time. Two beers or a glass of wine. It's not based on an entire evening of drinking. It's been shown that the detrimental effects kick in at the third beer."

In fact, it's likely these products could make hangovers worse.

"There's a danger, I think, that it encourages heavier drinking," Sanelli said. "People can get careless because they think they have a hangover cure, so they can drink as much as they want."

Of all the supposed cures floating around, Brown said one actually has some proof behind it, in the form of a randomized, controlled study. It's called HPF Hangover Prevention Formula and contains prickly pear. Half of those involved in the study reported that the supplement helped ward off dry mouth and nausea, but not headaches, weakness or tiredness.

The others rely on vitamins, sugars, herbs or activated charcoal, which hospitals use to treat poisonings.

"The majority of them don't work," Brown said. "If people are trying to justify their drinking more, they need to realize they're spending money on a product that's going to do very little, if anything, for them."

If you really want to avoid a hangover, Sanelli suggests drinking slowly and in moderation; making sure you eat; alternating glasses of water or soda or coffee to decrease the amount of alcohol you'll drink; and making sure to set a time to cut yourself off.

Of course, she said, there's one more foolproof way to skip the alcohol-related, morning-after ailments: don't drink.

If you don't think that's an option, consider this: Early January is a busy time of year for alcohol treatment centers, as people sign up for alcohol and drug assessments after their holiday cheer got out of hand. It's not a coincidence, Sanelli said, that when members stand and give their anniversary dates at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, there are a lot of Jan. 2 or Jan. 3 anniversaries.



Myths and facts about sobering up and "curing" hangovers, from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

Myth: Drink coffee. Caffeine will sober you up.

Fact: The body needs time to metabolize alcohol and even more time to return to normal. There are no trick cures; only time will help.

Myth: Take aspirin and drink a lot of water at bedtime to prevent a hangover.

Fact: Water helps with dehydration, but aspirin can make your stomach hurt, and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be toxic to a liver soaked with alcohol.

Myth: Eat before going to sleep to soak up the alcohol and prevent nausea.

Fact: Food does more the morning after, especially foods with complex carbohydrates (such as cereals and breads) that help replenish blood sugar and ease an upset stomach.

Myth: A morning drink will help cure a hangover (the "hair of the dog" theory).

Fact: This short-term "cure" only feels good because your brain is reacting to alcohol. You can get back to normal only by getting alcohol out of your system.


AVOIDING HANGOVERS offers these tips to avoid a hangover:

-Drink slowly and on a full stomach.

-Drink only in moderation. (The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends women have no more than one drink per day and men no more than two drinks per day. One drink is defined as a 12-ounce bottle of beer; a 4-ounce glass of wine; or a 1 1/2-ounce shot of liquor.)

-Drink a glass of water in between drinks containing alcohol. This will help you drink less alcohol, and will also decrease the dehydration associated with drinking alcohol.

-The obvious tip: Hangovers can be prevented altogether if you avoid alcohol.


(c) 2004, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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