The Science of Hangovers

Researchers at the Keele University School of Psychology report that being hungover increases the number of mental errors a person makes by nearly 30 percent. It also negatively affects memory and reaction times.

They're hosting the 5th Annual Meeting of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group and are presenting their findings on the effects of hangovers on brain function. "Although numerous scientific papers cover the acute effects of alcohol consumption, researchers have largely neglected the issue of alcohol hangover,” lead researcher Lauren Owen, the Marie Curie postdoctoral research fellow at Keele’s school of psychology, told British newspaper The Telegraph.

“The findings are preliminary, but so far we are observing that tasks that rely on what psychologists call ‘working memory’ seem to be most reliably affected,” Owen added.

Working memory is what allows us to hold and manipulate information in our minds—when we’re calculating the tip on a restaurant bill, for example.

Owen’s team has so far found that being hungover impairs working memory by five to 10 percent and slows reaction times to such a degree that people in their 20s react at the same speed as people in their 40s.

29 Is the Worst Age for a Hangover

In a separate study, Redemption, a UK advocacy group that promotes alcohol-free bars, has shown that 29-year-olds get the most brutal hangovers. Their hangovers last about 10 hours and 24 minutes—nearly an hour longer than the average.

They speculate that this is because 29-year-olds think they can still drink like college kids, leading to an excruciating wake-up call that peaks around 10 a.m. the next morning.

The Redemption-sponsored survey also showed:

  • Brits take an average of six sick days a year because of hangovers.
  • One in three Brits believes sex is the best hangover cure.
  • One in 10 Brits posted something on Facebook while drunk that they regretted the next day.

And a 2011 survey of Americans by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found:

  • Nearly one-quarter of respondents said they’d been binge drinking at least once in the month before the survey.
  • 13.3 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 said they were current alcohol users.
  • More than 20 percent of adults ages 21 to 25 reported driving under the influence in the year before the survey.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, among adults ages 18 and older with less than a high school education, 35.1 percent were current drinkers, while 68.2 percent of college graduates said they were current drinkers.

Expert Advice for 'Curing' Hangovers

Aside from laying off the booze, which Redemption recommends, is there another way to avoid a nasty hangover?

Dr. Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer at Keele, explains that the body breaks down ethanol, the type of alcohol in most adult beverages, into acetate, leaving behind a toxic byproduct.

This toxic byproduct, dehydration, and other toxic organic compounds in alcoholic drinks likely bring on the classic headache, dry mouth, and nausea of the morning after.

Unlike Brits who suggest hopping in the sack, Stephens says there’s evidence a little top-up could help. He says giving your body a bit more ethanol to break down could at least postpone the onset of a hangover.

“So there is a biological basis for 'hair of the dog,'” Stephens told The Telegraph

However, Dr. Michael Oshinsky of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, whose research involved giving lab rats hangovers, swears the best cure is tried and true: aspirin and coffee.

“If you drink a small amount of alcohol, three or four hours later, drink some coffee,” Oshinsky told NBC News. “Or take caffeine in some form, like an Excedrin that has caffeine in it.”

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