Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Wellness Renegade's Hangover Cure


Ugh! The dreaded hangover.

The splitting headache. The nausea and heartburn. The dizziness. The fatigue and mental fog. The body aches. The horrible sleep. Any extreme of light or sound can make you crazy. God-forbid you have to do anything productive or go to work.



You’ll never drink again, right? Well, every so often things happen. A couple glasses of wine turns into a few bottles as you solve the world’s problems. Maybe you take a brew-pub bike tour with your friends where you actually drink on the 12-person bicycle between breweries (see my picture above). Or maybe you get a little carried away with the “liquid courage” at a party or club.

We all know (at least I hope we do) that more than the occasional drink or two is too much and has all kinds of health and addiction implications. But, unfortunately, and even among the most disciplined, we may occasionally overindulge and pay the price – the hangover.

The Physiology of a Hangover

The most detailed, non-biased (no product affiliation) description I have found on the physiology of a hangover is from the article, Alcohol Hangover Mechanisms and Mediators, from the publication Alcohol Health and Research World. For those of you who love the nitty-gritty scientific details it’s worth the read, but if you don’t, here are the highlights:
  • Dehydration – This is probably common knowledge for those of us that have experienced the dry mouth, headache, and thirst of a hangover. Alcohol is a diuretic and leads to some degree of dehydration.
  • Electrolyte Imbalance – In addition to the diuretic properties of alcohol, sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea (“beer sh-ts” to use the parlance of our times), can then lead to electrolyte imbalance. Common symptoms associated with this and the dehydration can include fatigue, weakness, muscle aches, and lightheadedness.
  • Alcohol Metabolism – Alcohol is metabolized in two stages. An enzyme first metabolizes alcohol into Acetaldehyde. This is thought to be one the biggest factors in a hangover. “At higher concentrations, it causes toxic effects, such as a rapid pulse, sweating, skin flushing, nausea, and vomiting.”
  • Congeners – Congeners are the compounds in alcohol that make up the taste, smell, and color. They are produced during fermentation or added during production. The consumption of alcohol with fewer congeners, like vodka, tends to lead to fewer hangover symptoms. My guess is that, and I’m sure there may be some anecdotal evidence from your college days, that Jose Cuervo Tequila is loaded with congeners.
  • Gastrointestinal Disturbances- Alcohol directly irritates the lining of the stomach and intestines causing further leading stomach and gut issues.
  • Low Blood Sugar- Due to the change in the “metabolic state of the liver and other organs” alcohol can inhibit glucose production. While not mentioned in the article, I would also hypothesize that sugar associated with certain mixed drinks and cocktails may further lead to blood sugar imbalance and a resulting crash. Fatigue, weakness, and mood disturbances are common symptoms of low blood sugar.
  • Sleep Disturbance – Alcohol screws up sleep many disturbing ways. While alcohol is a sedative, the “rebound excitation” can lead to poorer quality sleep. It also reduces the amount of time in REM sleep and increases the amount of time in deep “slow-wave” sleep. Alcohol also disrupts the temperature cycles associated with our circadian rhythm. While intoxicated, body temperatures are lower than normal, and when in a hung-over state (no blood alcohol), body temperatures are higher than normal.
    Alcohol also stimulates the release of cortisol, further messing up our natural circadian rhythm.
    All these disturbances in sleep can contribute to fatigue, weakness, foggy-headedness, and almost a “jet lag” type effect.
  • Alcohol Withdrawal- There is evidence to support that the hangover is also a form of withdrawal. The ethanol in alcohol affects certain elements of the central nervous system. The end result being a down-regulation of GABA receptors and an up-regulation of glutamate to balance the sedative effects of alcohol. The problem is that once the alcohol is removed from the system, this response remains in effect.
    This can account for many symptoms associated with both withdrawal and hangover including sweats, racing heart, tremors, anxiety, headache, sensitivity to light and sound, and even nausea and vomiting.
These are just the primary factors that make up the hangover. As you can see, excess consumption of alcohol causes the perfect storm leading us to feel, as one person so aptly put it in his comment on a hangover cure forum, “like a sack of a—holes.”

The large number of factors also makes the hangover extremely difficult to treat quickly and effectively.

The Wellness Renegade Hangover Cure

This “cure” came about by accident. About 8 or 9 years ago, after a night of overindulgence, a friend and I decided to go to our local tea shop to buy some green tea and have a cup or two.
The tea sommelier was raving about this blend he had recently started drinking and invited us to sit down and try some. After an hour or so of chatting and drinking many cups of this tea blend, I noticed I had no signs of hangover. My friend had the same realization.

The blend was roughly equal parts combination of an Pu Erh Tea (aged/fermented green tea), Chrysanthemum Flower, and Chinese Wolfberry (goji berry).

I recommend drinking massive quantities continually for hours upon waking from a hangover. At best, your hangover will be gone within an hour, at worst, you’ll feel quite a bit better. A large pinch of each of the three combined together will make at least 4 or 5 steepings. The tea also tastes very good.

Mechanism of Action (my hybrid Chinese medicine / biomedical hypothesis)

First of all, drinking a lot of liquid will help offset any dehydration and may benefit electrolyte balance. According to Chinese medicine theory, both pu erh tea and chrysanthemum aid and sooth digestion. Chrysanthemum is also used in Chinese medicine for both headaches and dizziness associated with liver imbalance.

The pu erh and Chinese wolfberry both are potent antioxidants, which may help neutralize some of the toxic compounds. Chinese wolfberry can sooth the nervous system according to Chinese Medicine, and it has also been shown to have beneficial effects on the liver (including lowering elevated liver enzymes).
You can buy pu erh at tea shops, the internet, and Chinese grocery stores. Chrysanthemum flowers and Chinese wolfberry (gogi berrys) can be also be found online and at health food stores. You can probably find them the cheapest, however, at a Chinese herb shop. Chrysanthemum is called Ju Hua in Chinese and the wolfberry is called Gou Qi Zi.

(The Wellness Renegade is Barra's very own Doug Grootveld. A licensed acupuncturist of ten years, Doug offers unconventional advice on health, wellness, and happiness based on information from expert practitioners of varied disciplines and from the experience he has gained with working with thousands of patients.)