How to beat a hangover – and common myths to ignore

Woman with a hangover in bed with glasses of alcohol around her. (Getty Images)
Apart from not drinking, is there anything you can do to avoid a hangover? (Getty Images)

The festive party season has been in full swing and we still have New Year's Eve to come, which can only mean one thing. Hangovers. Lots of hangovers.

We all have our own methods of tackling that dreaded morning after fug. Some drinkers will deal with it by simply lying in bed and sleeping it off while the less fortunate will present the full gamut of symptoms; from hot sweats to vomiting, nausea to a heightened sensitivity to light and sound.

With so many treatments, theories and therapies about how to handle this challenging state, we decided to ask Harley Street nutritionist Lily Soutter to talk us through some of the more common misconceptions about hangovers and suggest the most effective way of getting back to normality.

Read more: How to beat a festive hangover

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Can you avoid a hangover?

Apart from not drinking in the first place, there's little you can do to avoid a hangover if you overindulge. But you can mitigate the severity of the dreaded morning after by taking a few pre-emptive measures.

Prevention is much better than cure when it comes to a hangover, so moderation and mindful drinking are key, as is a balanced meal containing all key food groups prior to drinking – it will help to slow the release of alcohol into the bloodstream and protect your stomach lining. And, as Soutter explains, ensure you take on lots of water.

“As alcohol is a diuretic, it’s important to hydrate before you start drinking and, crucially, rehydrate the following day,” says Soutter. “Try to take on around two litres of water every day.

Does 'hair of the dog' sort you out?

Many people swear by having another alcoholic drink when they wake up the day after the night before. The theory goes that as a hangover is, essentially, your body fighting to break down the alcohol in it, then raising the alcohol levels in your system will help to negate any symptoms.

But it’s a slippery slope and all you’ll really be doing is delaying the inevitable. Besides, just ask yourself whether the very thing that caused the problem in the first place can also cure it.

“I wouldn’t recommend ‘hair of the dog’ for a hangover,” says Soutter. “While you may feel better temporarily, you’ll quickly be back to where you started in terms of your hangover once the effects wear off.”

Read more: Why do we get anxious when hungover? 'Hanxiety' explained by expert

A bloody mary. (Getty Images)
Drinking a Bloody Mary cocktail as a 'hair of the dog' might not be the best idea. (Getty Images)

Do hangovers get worse the older you get?

Yes and no. In 2020, a study by Utrecht University’s Institute for Pharmaceutical Sciences in the Netherlands, found that the severity and frequency of hangovers, actually declines with age. Research showed that those in the age group 18-25 experienced, on average, 2.2 hangovers per month while those in the 56-65 bracket had just 0.3, falling to a mere 0.1 by the time they reached the 66-75 age range.

However, there is some truth in the idea that your body is less efficient at metabolising alcohol as you get older. The reason? Fat. Yes, as we age our body composition changes, and we tend to have a higher percentage of body fat, coupled with lower levels of lean muscle mass, the net result being lower amounts of water in our bodies and a greater inability to expel alcohol from the system.

“The more body fat an individual has the longer the alcohol will remain in the bloodstream, increasing the chances of experiencing a hangover,” says Soutter.

Will a full English make you feel better?

While the idea of a big plate of hot fried food might be appealing, your body won’t appreciate having to grapple with digesting fatty meats like bacon and sausages. It’s likely that the salt content in a cooked breakfast is also going to be high too, meaning further dehydration when you least need it.

Instead, go for foods that are high in potassium, magnesium and calcium – vegetables, broths and soups are good – and ones with slow release carbs like wholegrain bread, pasta, rice or sweet potato with the skins on.

“A good breakfast, like eggs on wholegrain toast, will help to keep your blood sugar stable and supply a steady release of glucose to the body and brain,” adds Soutter.

Read more: Do tea and coffee count towards daily water intake? How to stay hydrated in winter

A full English breakfast. (Getty Images)
Many believe a full English is the key to recovery when hungover, but that's not the case. (Getty Images)

Is there wisdom in old wives' tales?

We’re all aware of the old adages; 'beer then wine then you’ll be fine', or 'beer then liquor and you’ll never be sicker' – you know the kind of thing. Our advice? Ignore them as taking your drinks in any order will always give you a hangover if you have too many.

That said, some drinks can provoke more severe hangovers than others so steer clear of brown spirits like whisky and brandy and anything mixed with energy drinks.

“If you have to pick one drink, then vodka or a gin with a low sugar mixer such as soda water and a squeeze of lemon or lime would be a top choice,” say Soutter.

“This is a more hydrating option and has a large volume size which takes longer to drink. It also has a very low sugar content, which is important for keeping blood sugar stable. Clear spirits also contain lower levels of congeners, which are chemicals that may increase the intensity of a hangover."

When trying not to have 'one too many', remember that it's recommended to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread across three days or more. There's no completely safe level of drinking, but sticking within these NHS guidelines should lower the risk of harming your health.

Visit Drink Aware for more advice on drinking responsibly.

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