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Hangovers More of a Headache Than You Think

WebMD Health News

June 5, 2000 - Everyone has his or her own hangover remedy. Ancient Romans said eat fried canaries. Modern Greeks in college fraternities say drink more "hair of the dog that bit you" -- meaning more alcohol. But although many people swear by their personal hangover cure, a review of more than 100 studies finds that, other than time, only a few things may actually help.

Hangovers may actually be more of a headache than previously thought, according to Jeffrey G. Wiese, MD. Medical problems associated with hangovers can be severe for some people. People with heart problems can be at greater risk for heart attacks, says Wiese, because hangovers put people in a situation "that is very similar to high stress, and that is an increase in blood pressure, a high heart rate."

He adds that there is some evidence that blood cells involved in clotting called platelets become "stickier," thus making blood clots more likely. Other studies have shown that thinking and performance can be impaired.

Wiese and colleagues from the General Internal Medicine Section of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco reviewed more than 4,700 medical journal articles written about alcohol intoxication since 1965, and found 108 that addressed the hangover. Their findings were published in a recent issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

"It's something that here and there, people toyed with, but nobody ever really got around to saying how big of a problem this is," Wiese tells WebMD, adding many people simply view the hangover as penance, nothing more, nothing less.

One "big purpose" of the review, says Wiese, was to not only alert the public to the problem of hangovers, but also to raise awareness among physicians that this is something worth asking your patients about "to try to assess those who might be at greater risk for alcoholism.

"We need to get over the social sentiment, 'well, that's what you deserve,' if this is really putting people at risk, and do a better job of raising awareness so people know that this can cause medical problems," Wiese tells WebMD.

But more common than potential medical problems is the muddleheaded feeling the day after. Robert Cloninger, MD, a well-known researcher in alcohol studies, defines a hangover quite simply as "feeling bad after drinking." But it does go beyond just that, Cloninger tells WebMD.

"You don't think as well; you're achy; you're slower; you're really not functioning a 100%," he says. Cloninger is a professor of psychiatry, genetics, and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Wiese writes about the common symptoms of hangovers, predominantly a headache, then a poor sense of overall well-being, diarrhea, loss of appetite, shakiness, fatigue, and nausea. The alcohol causes the bad feelings because it leaves a person dehydrated and malnourished. One debatable theory, Wiese writes, is that a hangover is the first stage of alcohol withdrawal.

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