As long as there has been alcohol, there have been hangovers — and yet there has been no cure. Though there’s no lack of morning-after tips, we don’t have a pill or drink that can instantly reduce those telltale symptoms of nausea and exhaustion.
Journalist Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall set out to investigate why and the result is Hung Over: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for a Cure (out now from Penguin Random House). The Verge spoke to Bishop-Stall about the cultural history of hangovers, why your hangover is not the same as mine, and what’s keeping us from that cure.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
I assume that hangovers have been happening as long as we’ve had alcohol. What’s the first cultural reference to a hangover?
I think that depends on what your belief is in certain poems and certain books. The early Talmud tradition of Hebrew culture actually suggests that it was a bunch of grapes rather than an apple that cast Adam and Eve down into this earthly plane, so that could almost be seen as the first-ever hangover actually creating humanity the way we see it. Later, we have Noah actually making wine and becoming intoxicated from it and then waking up into this horrible morning where he attacks his brother and creates a division that lasts centuries.
Even what we considered the first book in English literature, Beowulf, has all these warriors taken down because they got too drunk the night before battle. There are actually quite a few examples throughout history of wars being lost and empires even falling because of ill-timed drinking of courage the night before.
What about the term “hangover”? How recent is it?
It’s an extremely recent term for a malady that’s older than language. The word “hangover” doesn’t appear in writing further back than around 1902, in a very off-hand, comical reference in a book called The Absurd Dictionary. After that, it’s hard to find another reference to the term until about 20 years later, right between the World Wars. Today, you see it becoming a really popular part of the lexicon, so much now that it’s used in languages all around the world.
Physiologically speaking, what is a hangover?
There’s a lot of disagreement, and it’s amazing how little we know about the scientific condition and how it works. The best I can do in figuring it out and describing it is to say that it’s foremost an immune system response. It’s really our body overreacting to what it sees as a sort of toxic danger and that danger started when the alcohol starts to break down in the body, which creates a domino effect.
When alcohol is broken down, we have these ugly chemicals in the body that cause the immune response. Then you get inflammation throughout the body, and even the cells of your interior organs become so inflamed they become rigid and aren’t able to absorb water. Meanwhile, alcohol is a diuretic, so it’s causing the body to lose water anyway. There are different systems being triggered but again, I would characterize the process as an overreaction of our immune system.
Is there a slippage of language happening when we talk about hangovers? Are people describing different phenomena?
Absolutely. Throughout history, people have used the words “hung over” and “drunk” interchangeably, like in sea shanties where they sing about a drunk sailor and it’s obviously he’s hung over.
“Hangover” means different things to different people. We all become hung over in very different ways, just as we become drunk in different ways. Alcohol is a mysterious molecule that affects the body in ways we still don’t understand, so that slippage of language is almost necessary. It’s something we’re experiencing differently. It’s subjective, which is partly what makes research and finding a cure so difficult.
Oftentimes when I talk about “curing” my own hangovers, I’ve resolved stomach distress and nausea and headache and muscle pain, which are all things we associate with acute hangover. But what’s left over is that feeling of tiredness and hollowness and maybe grouchiness, which is probably alcohol-related exhaustion. Some people say they’re “hung over” if they’re tired, others wouldn’t consider that a criteria, you know?
What are some hangover solutions that you came across that were absurd and ridiculous?
I think most interesting are the ones that are absurd and strange and then I realize after digging more that there’s something scientifically behind them. For example, one of the most consistent things you’ll see dating all the way back to Roman antiquity and even before is this idea of eating the eggs of birds the next morning, whether they be pickled or oiled. Of course, in many cultures for thousands of years and up to the present day, eggs have been breakfast.
Then I learned that eggs have a fairly high dose of an amino acid called cysteine that’s basically as close as I could come to a magical cure. Same thing with boiled cabbage. There have been poems written about cabbage and I wasn’t sure if this was a metaphor, but it turns out that cabbage will go into the body and take out toxins.
I also tried some of the more esoteric and less supported cures, like squeezing a wedge of lemon in your armpit. Or in medieval England, you were supposed to put a piece of hemlock in your sock and walk around with it. With these, I’m not sure how much had a medical concept versus they were supposed to be able to magically ward off the hangover.
What’s the state of research into the hangover cure?
There’s still not much effort to look into it as a medical condition. There is a group of 10 scientists from around the world who get together once a year to talk about their academic findings. They’re really looking at the underlying cause of hangover and they’re a very separate group from the more entrepreneurial folks who are looking at hangovers from the top down.
And these two groups don’t seem to recognize each other. The research guys have zero interest in solving the hangover, they’re just looking at what causes it and they won’t even have conversations about what might work to solve it. Meanwhile, there’s the Hangover Heaven clinic where you can get this IV of different vitamins and minerals and electrolytes. But that’s pretty limited.
Why haven’t we had a cure yet? It seems like there’s a lack of scientific research and a lack of trust?
During the decade or so I researched this book, I must have seen hundreds of “hangover cure” companies be created and disappear. There’s so much attempts out there and even now, I’ll get contacted daily. It is a constant effort, but even aside from the research, I don’t think the industry has been figured out insofar as educating people and marketing any cures.
And there’s also a lot of skepticism around hangover cures. For some reason, a lot of people know that we can send people into space, but think there’s no way in hell we could actually cure the common hangover. It’s baffling to me how people are resistant even when it shouldn’t be that difficult compared to so much of what else we’ve been able to do scientifically. Maybe it just points to some human need to not cure this thing, so that we don’t all get stupid drunk all the time.