Do you swear by a post-night out full English? Or maybe your hangover cure is a banana and coffee? Here’s the science behind whether they really work.
People are precious about their hangover cures. Most people who drink alcohol have a very specific concoction of egg/bread/Coca Cola/cereal/hair of the dog that will make them feel better after a big night out (or, as in 2020, big night in). While excessive drinking is never a good idea, the festive season does bring with it a lot of booze-based evenings for those who choose to drink, meaning that now more than ever we would love news of a hangover cure.
Even now, with household mixing limited, Christmas parties are ongoing. We’re doing Zoom quizzes (again), virtual wine tasting and outdoor markets that heavily feature mulled wine. And whether you find handling the hangover from home easier than being in the office, we still need to feel good enough to work from our own stuffy bedrooms the next day.
But can those magic cures people swear by really help your hangover? “Many cures have been suggested, but there is little scientific evidence to support them,” says Helena Gibson-Moore, nutrition scientist for the British Nutrition Foundation.
The phrase ‘prevention is better than cure’ is pretty relevant here, according to Helena: “The obvious cure is not drinking too much alcohol – but this can be hard over the festive season. So if you know you’re going to have a few drinks, eat something beforehand.”
Yep, your mum’s old rule of not drinking on an empty stomach really is true, as food slows the absorption of alcohol into the blood. A study from the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that the alcohol elimination rate increased by 25% when alcohol followed food compared to fasting.
But the science behind pre-party carb-loading may not quite be true, as “currently there’s not enough scientific evidence to suggest which types of food or nutrients are better at doing this than others,” according to Helena. In fact, the same study found that alcohol elimination rate increased similarly when the meals were either high-fat, high-protein or high-carb.
As for the next day? “Alcohol is a diuretic – in other words it makes you urinate more. If you don’t drink enough water or non-alcoholic drinks when you’re drinking alcohol, you can become dehydrated. Dehydration is the main cause of many of the symptoms of a hangover,” says Helena.
That means that one of the main ways to ease symptoms is to simply keep topping up those fluid levels. “The main thing is to replace lost fluids and have foods that contain plenty of essential nutrients,” Helena says. “Water is good but you may like to try some unsweetened fruit juice which contains some vitamins, or a smoothie made with milk or fruit.”
Good news: while some people say that coffee and tea can make hangovers worse because the caffeine is believed to be a diuretic, Helena says that they can actually help with rehydration on a hangover. And, as alcohol can affect our sleep, it is also useful to get you up and alert the day after a drink.
And then, there’s food. The hangover favourites that people often go to maybe because they are full of nutrients, as Helena suggested. Eggs, for example, are loaded with B vitamins as well as vitamin D and iron. Bananas are full of potassium and magnesium, two nutrients that could be affected by low hydration levels. However, neither of these things will cure the full symptoms of a hangover (fatigue, nausea, lightheadedness, a lack of concentration…) but simply help get your body’s nutrients back to what they once were.
While you might find heading to your greasy spoon helpful, Helena says we need to think of our stomachs. “Eat something that is gentle,” she says, as fat is harder to digest than other nutrients, putting more strain on your body. “If you like a cooked breakfast when you’re hungover then try to choose from wholemeal toast, poached or scrambled eggs, a slice of grilled bacon, canned tomatoes and reduced sugars and salt baked beans,” she suggests.
That might be your idea of a nightmare, given that everyone feels different with a hangover. The most important thing is making sure you eat for your appetite: “As with all hangover symptoms, effects on appetite vary between individuals – you may wake up feeling ravenous or you may not be able to face food if you’re feeling sick and unwell,” Helena says. “We don’t understand exactly why this is but we do know that alcohol can increase appetite when we are drinking and we also know that lack of sleep can increase appetite.”
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Unfortunately, it all boils down to the sad fact that “there is no specific food that will cure a hangover,” according to Helena. The research backs her up: a 2005 British Medical Journal study found that no “conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover”. That means that it’s all down to you, both in terms of finding what works for you, your stomach and your energy levels, as well as making sure you drink responsibly enough to not get a hangover in the first place.
So, as we enter the festive period, we wish you good luck.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).