(Health.com) – Prevention is the best cure for a hangover. The only way to avoid a pounding head and queasiness the morning after is to drink in moderation, or to stay away from alcohol entirely. But with all sorts of seasonal celebrations going on, it’s easy to overindulge.
Alternating your drinks with water or another nonalcoholic beverage can help you slow down and stay hydrated. If you still wind up with a hangover, you may be inclined to try one of the many supposedly tried-and-true remedies that have been passed down through the ages.
Don’t get your hopes up. Traditional hangover remedies are often ineffective, and some of them may actually make you feel worse.
Hair of the dog
Even though the thought of a Bloody Mary may appeal to you, a Virgin Mary is a much better choice the morning after.
“The worst thing to do is to have another drink,” says Charles Cutler, M.D., an internist in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and the chair of the American College of Physician’s board of governors.
The alcohol may temporarily take the edge off your symptoms but could hurt in the long run. Hangovers make you feel horrible because alcohol is toxic, Cutler explains, and you need to give your body a chance to recover. That morning drink could lead to an even worse hangover the following day.
There’s no scientific evidence that a heaping helping of bacon and eggs will ease hangover anguish, although many people swear by it. “Greasy food is just going to give you heartburn,” says Cutler, who recommends sticking with easy-to-digest foods such as toast or cereal. “You want to get calories right back into your system.”
Eat light and stay hydrated, agrees John Brick, Ph.D., an alcohol research scientist and author of “The Doctor’s Hangover Handbook.”
“No specific foods are recommended, although honey sandwiches are helpful to some people,” Brick says. “[They’re] easy to eat and digest.”
Alka-Seltzer turns 80 in 2011, and the famous fizzy medicine has probably been used to treat hangovers for nearly that long. In 2001, the company even introduced a Morning Relief formulation specifically for hangovers.
All Alka-Seltzer varieties contain sodium bicarbonate (also known as baking soda), which will help settle a queasy belly by neutralizing stomach acid. But other ingredients, notably aspirin and citric acid, may irritate your stomach after a night of heavy drinking.
Aspirin or ibuprofen
Over-the-counter painkillers can certainly help ease hangover headaches and the aches and pains you may feel elsewhere in your body after a night of heavy drinking.
But choose carefully. If you’re a regular heavy drinker, you may have done some damage to the lining of your stomach, and taking aspirin or ibuprofen (such as Advil) can worsen this damage and even cause bleeding, Dr. Cutler warns.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is also risky for habitual drinkers, due to the potential for liver damage. Check with your doctor about a painkiller that’s right for you.
There are lots of products out there that claim to prevent or cure hangovers — such as Chaser, PreToxx, and RU 21 – but there is very little scientific evidence that they will make you feel any better.
“Hangover pills that have been studied are not effective, or only help against a few complaints…but not all,” says Joris C. Verster, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychopharmacology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who studies hangovers.
A 2005 review article in the journal “BMJ” identified eight peer-reviewed, placebo-controlled studies of hangover remedies, and concluded that “no compelling evidence exists” to support their use.
“What’s in them either doesn’t work, or if it has any benefit, you could buy it generically for probably a third of the price,” says Cutler.
He suggests taking a multivitamin instead to restore the nutrients your body may have lost during a binge.
If you’re a regular coffee drinker, skipping the java when you’re hung over may – or may not be – a good idea, Brick says. You may wind up layering a pounding caffeine-withdrawal headache on top of your hangover woes if you miss your morning fix.
That said, caffeine narrows your blood vessels and boosts blood pressure. “Both of these may make the hangover worse,” Brick says. “If you drink coffee regularly, you might try a very small amount in the morning. Wait 30 to 60 minutes and see how you feel.”
Water and sports drinks
Conventional wisdom holds that the dehydration caused by heavy drinking is what makes you feel so bad the next day.
In fact, experts actually know very little about what causes a hangover. Potential culprits include disrupted biological rhythms or even alcohol withdrawal, and research suggests that congeners – toxic substances found in alcohol, especially dark liquors such as whiskey – may also play a role.
Nevertheless, replacing the fluid you’ve lost will likely help you feel a little less miserable.
“Juice, water, Gatorade, all those things – they’re going to make you feel better,” says Cutler.
A gentle workout might help you feel better, if you can manage it. (That’s a big if.)
“Remember: If you’ve been drinking heavily, you could be a little dehydrated, you could be metabolically behind on your nutrition, and exercise is going to require hydration and nutrition,” Cutler says. “Exercise is always the right thing to do, but I don’t think [on] the morning you wake up with a hangover, exercise is what you need.”
What you really need is rest, he adds.
Think you can “sweat out” the alcohol and other toxins you may have consumed during a night of partying? Think again.
A sauna can cause potentially dangerous blood vessel and blood flow changes in your body. “The last thing you need is to disrupt the normal blood flow patterns by extreme heat,” Cutler says.
If you’re already somewhat dehydrated, excessive sweating can be harmful, and even deadly. Researchers from the Finnish State Alcohol Company’s Research Laboratories in Helsinki warn that sauna bathing while hung over carries “real health risks,” including dangerous drops in blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms.
People sleep poorly after a night of drinking. Alcohol will put you to sleep quickly, but when it begins to wear off several hours later, the withdrawal your body feels can disrupt sleep and jolt you awake. While sleep deprivation won’t by itself cause a hangover, it can definitely make the symptoms worse.
If you have the luxury of “sleeping it off” the next day, do so. Your foggy brain and achy body will thank you. “The body’s got an amazing capacity to heal on its own,” says Cutler. In the end, the only surefire treatment for a hangover is time.