For the past decade, Canadian journalist Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall has been on a quest to find a cure for the common hangover.
To this end, he consults remedies both medical and folk: He undergoes an IV treatment at a medical institution in Las Vegas called Hangover Heaven; consults with a menagerie of academics, a Druid, several doctors, and the CEO of 5-Hour Energy (among others); participates in a glacial New Year’s polar bear swim; absorbs the beer-soaked wisdom of the English countryside; and ingests any number of curative concoctions, with varying degrees of success.
These experiences become fodder for Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure, a book that is as concerned with the science and culture of hangovers as it is with relieving them. I called Bishop-Stall to find out what we know about hangovers, why we don’t know more, and why — if hangovers are so miserable — people keep drinking. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you end up spending a decade researching hangovers?
The more that I started to look into the science of it and the history of it, the more I realized that, first of all, no such large endeavor had ever been undertaken. There were no books about hangovers, really. I mean, there have been jokey coffee table books or some sort of ancient, obscure references, but there was really so little for what became, to me, such a large part of human experience. That disconnect was just too obvious, and so I just became more and more fascinated by it.
If it’s such a core part of human experience — drinking too much, feeling physically wrecked the next day — why hasn’t it been studied more?
I think there’s something mysterious about the phenomenon. It’s a sickly, crummy, negative feeling, for the most part, and how much do we really want to focus on that? That may be one part of it. Even for me, it took a long time to realize what a wealth of fascinating stories come out of miserable aspects of life.
Also, there’s just been so little focus on it in the medical and scientific communities, just because there’s a very easy way to dismiss it: Well, you did it to yourself. It’s your own fault. You drank. If you didn’t drink, you’d be fine, so why even try to look into it anymore?
It’s a phenomenon that is scientifically and culturally fascinating, but we just say, “Oh, you know, it’s easily solvable.” The strangest thing is we believe it’s easily solvable because we did it to ourselves, but we also feel like we can’t actually solve it. Hangovers are so dichotomous in that way. It’s the same thing for cures: Everybody either thinks they have a cure and they go around telling everybody about it, or they believe that nobody has one.
The weird thing about hangovers is that that they’re self-inflicted but generally not fatal. Just deeply unpleasant.
Right, so it’s not necessarily a question of say, overdose. A hangover is actually withdrawal. It’s a quick withdrawal, much quicker than what happens with a lot of drugs. It usually leaves your system entirely within 24 hours. But the mechanism that breaks down alcohol and then filters it out of your system is so complicated and affects so many aspects of human physiology that it’s very difficult to understand.
Then combine that with the fact that we haven’t even really been trying to understand it through most of human history. We feel like we know so much about everything these days that there aren’t uncharted territories. And yet I was very hard-pressed to find people who could explain hangovers to me or were in agreement with each other about what the mechanism behind them even is.
Let’s back up for a second: What is a hangover, physiologically?
There are so many things going on. It starts when alcohol is broken down in the body— when the body processes alcohol, one of the byproducts is acetaldehyde, which is a toxic substance.
Then the body starts to react to that acetaldehyde, and it causes all sorts of nasty things, including very strong immune system responses from the body. A lot of what’s happening in a hangover is our body trying to defend itself from this nasty byproduct.
One of the many mechanisms that [kicks in] is an overall inflammation of your cells. I mean, in all your cells: your skin cells, the cells of your liver, your pancreas, your eyes. Everything becomes inflamed, and one of the many problems with cell inflammation is that it stops your body from absorbing water properly.
Alcohol already is a diuretic, and then you add the fact that your body isn’t absorbing water properly, and that’s why a huge part of hangover is dehydration. But when people say, “Well, it’s just dehydration,” they’re really not understanding that even the dehydration is just a symptom. If it was just dehydration, you could just drink water and you’d be fine, right? But it’s that it’s a dehydration that can’t be managed, because your body is in a state of not being able to absorb water. Every part of the body starts to activate in a somewhat panicked way, it seems to me, when the alcohol leaves the system.
Besides, you know, drinking in moderation, is there any way to stop that from happening?
For me, the only real way to stop a hangover is to stop it before that mechanism starts, because once it does, it’s such a domino effect. It ends up infiltrating every part of the body. Once it starts, the only thing you can do is treat it. By treat it, I mean just lessening the severity and the duration.
You spend a lot of the book trying various hangover cures — everything from doctor-administered IV drips in Las Vegas to eating charcoal scraped off your actual fireplace.
One thing that really surprised me when I was doing my research is how many ancient, ancient remedies actually have modern scientific reasoning behind them. I guess that’s the wrong way of looking at it — there are reasons that we now see, scientifically, why ancient cures could have worked.
So for example, when I did my “12 pints in 12 pubs” tour in England [an attempt to recreate the apocalyptic pub crawl in the 2013 film The World’s End], I kept asking all the bartenders, while we were getting drunk, for their best remedy, and all of them would say a proper British fry-up, which is basically eggs, bacon, and a bunch of other stuff.
Eggs have always been one of the most common remedies, and it turns out that one of the things that’s inside eggs is N-acetylcysteine, which is the same amino acid I ended up identifying as the most important ingredient in my own personal cure or concoction.
Same things with ancient remedies like boiled cabbage — we now understand that cabbage is a chelator, which means that it goes into the body, grips onto toxins, and then pulls them out with it when it leaves your system. It’s the same way charcoal works, which is why they give you charcoal tablets if you’re having an overdose. But it correlates with my Victorian chimney sweeps method of putting fireplace soot in a cup of milk and drinking that. A lot of these remedies that just seem folkloric or really esoteric actually do have some scientific reasoning behind them.
It seems like different remedies work for different people, to the extent than anything works at all.
I think that’s definitely true. I mean, think of how vastly different everybody responds to alcohol to begin with.
The way that alcohol targets the brain is much more impossible to track, and more scattered, than almost any other drug. If you look at most molecules that enter the brain and change brain chemistry, they’re targeting one or two specific receptors. Whereas alcohol sort of blankets the frontal lobe, where there are thousands upon thousands of receptors, and it affects all of them. What you’re dealing with is a totality of brain chemistry rather than a very tiny equation.
We know just from being alive and knowing people that all our brains are very different. To say alcohol does X for one person doesn’t mean it’s going to do the same thing for another. And the same thing seems to be true when it withdraws from our system, which also appears to be quite complicated.
One of the doctors you talk to argues that the whole idea of “curing” hangovers is misguided, because they have an important function: to deter people from drinking too much. Is it a good idea to cure hangovers?
Well, I’m not sure, and it seems that we are really somehow reticent to the idea anyway. What I don’t get is it seems like when I talk to people, everybody takes for granted that we all really want a hangover cure, but then everybody also seems to take for granted it’s impossible to find one. Those two things don’t connect for me at all. I mean, we all can sit there and watch a movie and see actual monsters that we’ve made on a screen.
We can believe that we put robots in our own blood, that we go and walk on the moon, but everybody’s like, “Nah. There’s no way we could cure a hangover.”
It makes zero logical sense. I think we’re somehow predisposed to not think it’s possible because — maybe intrinsically or maybe subconsciously — we know it shouldn’t be possible for the continuation of the species. I don’t know. But the weird thing is that it also cuts the other way, because they’re not as much a disincentive as it seems they should be. People know they’re going to get a hangover and still get drunk. That’s one question that came up working on the book: If hangovers hurt so much, why do we keep drinking?
I’ve never heard anybody talk about this, but I also think there’s a good chance that a lot of us get addicted to hangovers themselves.
People get addicted to the actual sensation?
A hangover gives you a bizarre freedom from having too many options at any one moment, or life being too complicated and you being anxious because you’re torn in too many directions. All of that can, to some degree, go quiet when you have a hangover because you have only one main objective, which is to survive this pain. For some people, it can be a bizarrely liberating thing because you don’t have any choices to make at that time.
And to a lesser degree, I think a lot of people get into the mode of taking a vacation from their everyday worries. They’re able to focus on the sickening task at hand, and I think some people — even subconsciously — start to crave that a little bit.
It’s sort of meditation-adjacent, except with nausea.
Yeah. Meditation-adjacent. I think that’s a good way of putting it.