dishevelled man with drink with happy new year sign in background

Hangovers – how to lessen the pain

In Health and Healing, Health and Nutrition by Sandra Cabot1 Comment

The best way to lessen the pain of hangovers is to avoid over indulging in alcohol, but for many of us we learn the hard way!


What happens in the liver?

Excess alcohol is very toxic to human cells because it is broken down (or metabolised) into a substance called acetaldehyde, which is even more toxic than alcohol itself. Acetaldehyde is not created until the alcohol reaches the liver. In the liver ethanol is broken down by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase into acetaldehyde.

The acetaldehyde is then broken down by another enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, and the antioxidant enzymes containing glutathione. Acting synergistically, the acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and the glutathione, turn the toxic acetaldehyde into non-toxic acetate. Acetate is a substance found in vinegar.

If you have a few too many, you will often forget how many drinks you have imbibed as your defences are weakened – but you will remember the next morning!

Your liver is the primary site for alcohol breakdown (metabolism). In the liver, alcohol is detoxified through a process called oxidation. Oxidation prevents the alcohol from accumulating and destroying your cells and body organs. A healthy liver oxidises pure alcohol (ethanol) at the rate of about 10ml per hour, which is less than 30ml of hard liquor.

Once alcohol is in your blood stream, your body makes getting rid of it the top priority. Thus it will stop metabolising anything else in order to first get the alcohol metabolised. The reason for this is that, whereas protein, carbohydrates, and fat have somewhere to be stored in your body, there is nowhere for alcohol – so it has be metabolised first.

Those who choose to drink alcoholic beverages should do so sensibly and in moderation. This ‘moderation’ is defined as the consumption of up to one standard drink per day for women and up to two for men.

Why do hangovers occur?

Alcohol metabolism all happens in the liver!

If your liver is working normally, this process works efficiently, giving the acetaldehyde only a short amount of time to damage cells if only safe amounts of alcohol are consumed.

BUT – the liver’s stores of glutathione rapidly run out if large amounts of alcohol are consumed quickly. This causes the toxic acetaldehyde to build up in the body for long periods of time. Much more damage occurs to your cells, especially in your liver, kidneys and brain. Your liver can repair itself. However the brain is less able to restore severely damaged brain cells.

The breakdown of acetaldehyde is crucial to avoiding short- and long-term damage from alcohol excess. For example, studies where the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase* is blocked with a drug called ‘Antabuse’ showed that the resulting acetaldehyde toxicity caused such severe headaches and vomiting that even alcoholics were wary of their next drink. Antabuse is a drug prescribed by doctors to fight alcoholism.

Females have less tolerance to alcohol because they have less acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and less glutathione in their liver. Thus they can get worse hangovers than men because it takes longer for the body to break down the alcohol.

*acetaldehyde dehydrogenase breaks down acetaldehyde

Strategies to prevent a hangover

Water and wine on steps photo by Monica SilvaHydrate

It is wise to drink plenty of water before, during and after drinking alcohol. Before going to bed drink two large glasses of water and do the same again on arising the morning after.

Water is the most important thing, but it works even better if you add the juice of a lime or lemon. Add a teaspoon of high strength magnesium powder to the water to prevent the headache and muscle pain and cramps. The most effective magnesium powders contain several types of magnesium, and no magnesium oxide. These are better utilised by the body, and contain approximately 400mg elemental magnesium per dose.

Eating fatty foods before you go out to party

Eating fatty foods before drinking can reduce chances of a hangover. Putting any food in the stomach prior to drinking alcohol helps to prevent a hangover. Fatty foods in particular take longer to digest and therefore slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. This gives the body more time to process the alcohol and will increase your chances of feeling reasonable the morning after.

Drink in moderation

Ideally limit yourself to one standard drink per hour because the body takes about an hour to process a standard single drink.

Mix your drinks with lemonade, other soft drinks or water, or add a lot of ice. Drink one or two glasses of water after every alcoholic beverage

This will keep you well hydrated and give your liver more time to process the alcohol and dilute the toxins. As a prevention method, drinking a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage slows down drinking, providing more time for the body to deal with the alcohol

Watch your drink choice

Drinkers generally fare better when they stick with one type of drink. Each new type of alcohol a drinker imbibes makes the body work that much harder and puts that many more toxins in the body, leading to a more severe hangover.

After drinking

Before bed

  • Take a good liver tonic that contains milk thistle, turmeric, B group vitamins and selenium to help support your liver to recover and detoxify your body.
  • Take vitamin C 1,000mg to get rid of the rest of the toxins and reduce inflammation.

In the morning

  • Take the liver tonic again to help support your liver to recover and detoxify your body.
  • Take another dose of vitamin C 1,000mg.
  • Make a raw vegetable juice – include orange, lemon, lime, pineapple, ginger, carrot, cabbage and some green herbs such as mint and parsley.
  • If you feel like it, eat breakfast – include some scrambled eggs as they contain sulphur-bearing amino acids such as cysteine and methionine. Include a banana for extra potassium. Keep in mind that caffeinated coffee and tea will further dehydrate you, although it can reduce a pounding vascular headache.

‘Hair of the dog’

Contrary to popular belief, more of the ‘hair of the dog that bit you’ only delays the inevitable. One of the reasons hangovers are so unpleasant is the liver is still processing the toxins left over from alcohol metabolism. Drinking more alcohol can make the symptoms seem to lessen at first but will only make the situation worse once the liver breaks the alcohol down, because it will have even more toxins to deal with.

The next day, try to get straight back to your regular healthy diet. Many people crave high sugar and high salt foods after a night of drinking, and this is a common symptom of adrenal gland exhaustion. Drinking alcohol is very stressful to your body and it depletes your body of several vitamins and minerals; particularly B vitamins, vitamin C and magnesium. Aim to eat lots of fresh vegetables the next day, along with high quality protein and fat.

Take care of your liver as it is working 24 hours, 7 days a week to protect you. Your liver is the cleanser and filter of your bloodstream, breaks down toxins so they can be eliminated and manufactures proteins essential to life. The liver stores precious vitamins and is also the major fat burning organ in your body.


Dr Sandra Cabot graduated with honours in Medicine and Surgery from the University of Adelaide in 1975. She is a pilot and uses her plane to work for the Angel Flight Charity. Dr Cabot has active medical practices in Camden, Adelaide and Merimbula in Australia.

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