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Strategies for a Hangover-Free Holiday Season

Old-fashioned remedies remain most effective prevention for hangovers
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'Tis the season to celebrate -- but beware! One too many glasses of eggnog at the office holiday party, or a bit more bubbly than you anticipated on New Year's Eve, and you're likely to find yourself feeling less than cheerful the day after.

Want to prevent a hangover from dampening your holiday spirits? Read on to discover tried-and-true remedies that work, new methods meant to halt hangovers before they strike, and why too much alcohol causes so much misery in the first place.

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Hangovers Explained

If, while nursing a horrific hangover, you've ever asked yourself, "How a couple of seemingly harmless drinks could have led to such misery?" consider this: "Alcohol is poison. The hangover is your body recuperating from being poisoned by alcohol and its metabolites," Aaron White, PhD, assistant research professor at Duke University Medical Center, tells WebMD. Symptoms vary, but can include one or all of the following:

  • Raging headaches. "Alcohol intoxication seems to produce dilation of the blood vessels that surround the brain, which may contribute to the headache in some people. Alcohol also has an effect on some neurotransmitters, increasing levels of serotonin or histamine that may trigger headaches," says Bruce Hetzler, PhD, psychology professor at Lawrence University.
  • Dehydration. Ever wake up after a night of heavy alcohol consumption and wonder why you're tongue is stuck to the roof of your mouth? Dehydration, also partly to blame for headaches and nausea, is the culprit. It causes excess urination by stopping the release of a hormone that helps the body hold on to fluid. Also sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea that sometimes accompany excess drinking can cause a person to become dehydrated. The signs of dehydration can be dizziness, lightheadedness, thirst, and weakness -- symptoms that are felt during a hangover.
  • Fatigue. The day after a night of drinking and revelry, you're probably wiped out. That's because alcohol disrupts sleep. Alcohol can work as a sedative to help promote sleep. But alcohol has an effect on sleep quality. "People who drink alcohol tend to have sleep maintenance insomnia -- you wake up too soon and then you can't get back to sleep," White says. That's not the only problem. "You don't spend as much time in 'slow wave', or REM, sleep," White explains. Vital for normal emotional and physical functioning, REM sleep (the dream phase) typically comprises between 20% and 25% of total sleep time.

A breakthrough study this year by Irish researchers Adele McKinney and Kieran Coyle showed that memory and psychomotor (fine motor) performance remain impaired the morning after heavy drinking, even when blood alcohol levels have dropped to zero or near zero.

Other studies have also shown that alcohol can interfere with normal 24-hour rhythms -- such as normal variations in heart rate and blood pressure seen at night. A racing heart can in extreme cases lead to a heart attack. Increased blood pressure and heart rate during a severe hangover can double the risk of a heart attack, reports Jeffrey Weise, associate professor of medicine at Tulane Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

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