6 Myths About How to Feel Better After Drinking
And 6 tips that actually work, from our PhD scientists.
Ask 100 different people, "how do you feel better after a night of drinking?", and you’re likely to hear 100 different answers. That “wisdom” you got from your friend Sandra – whose research was largely via Google University and significant “field testing” at the local bar – is memorable, but chances are that it’s more myth than truth. Our PhD scientists take a minute here to shine an objective, evidence-based light on 6 drinking fables we’ve encountered, and follow up with 6 best practices for your night out that can seriously help you have a better next day.
Myth #1: Order matters
We’ve all heard some variation of the classic rhyme: “Beer before liquor, never been sicker / Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear.” This catchy couplet simply isn’t true, or at the very least it’s misleading. A 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor (the average size of a shot) all contain roughly the same amount of alcohol, and overindulging in any of these drinks will likely result in a rough morning.
The myth likely arose from the fact that you can drink liquor much faster than beer, so while a 12oz beer contains the same amount of alcohol as a 1.5oz shot, you’ll likely consume the shot a lot more quickly. Your body can metabolize alcohol at a defined rate, so drinking more slowly allows your body to keep up. Therefore, if a drunk person decides to start taking shots at the end of the night, they may end up drinking several in quick succession, putting additional strain on their body when it’s already in hyperdrive trying to deal with the previously ingested alcohol.
However, if the same drunk person decides to have a beer, it’ll likely take them a long time to even get the one down, thus slowing down their drinking. But there is no biochemical reason why the order you ingest the drinks should matter, if you drink the same number of drinks in the same period of time.
The saying should really be, “don’t start taking shots at the end of the night, regardless of what you drank earlier,” but that just doesn’t really have the same ring to it. In short, it’s not what order you drink alcohol in, but the overall quantity of alcohol and duration you’re ingesting it in, that’s going to matter most.
Myth #2: Sober up quickly with coffee or a cold shower
This is a dangerous myth surrounding alcohol: that drinking a cup of coffee or taking a cold shower or really anything else will sober someone up enough to allow them to safely drive home that night.
This is unequivocally not true. Drinking coffee after drinking alcohol might make you feel more awake, but it has no effect on how quickly your body processes and/or eliminates alcohol from the bloodstream. A cold shower after drinking has the same nonexistent effect. It may shock your body and make you feel more awake, but your intoxication level and resulting impairment (e.g. slow reaction times, blurred vision, reduced coordination, poor judgement, etc.) will remain the same.
In short, you’ll just feel more awake — or wet — and either way, still drunk.
Myth #3: Eating food will sober you up
If you’re already drunk, it means that the alcohol you drank is already in your bloodstream. Any food you subsequently eat goes into your stomach where it can’t really have any effect whatsoever on the alcohol that made you drunk. Eating food after drinking won't sober you up.
However, it is important to note that eating BEFORE you drink is a good idea! If you already have food in your stomach, when you drink alcohol it will not be absorbed as readily, basically because the food you ate is in the way. You will eventually absorb all the alcohol you drink (food doesn’t “sop up” alcohol), but you will absorb it slower, which means your BAC won’t spike quite as high, and your liver will have more time to deal with the alcohol as it enters the bloodstream gradually, rather than all at once.
So basically, eat food before or during drinking. It's a good idea and a responsible drinking behavior; not because it will sober you up, but because it can at least slow down your body’s absorption of alcohol you drink after eating.
Myth #4: Drinking a significant amount of water before bed will prevent a rough morning
This myth is really based on another myth: that your rough morning is due to dehydration. While it is true that alcohol does cause you to pee more, this only results in – at most – very mild dehydration the next day. Studies demonstrate that the biochemical markers of dehydration do not correlate with hangover severity (citation), so preventing dehydration likely has little to do with how you feel the next day. In addition, assuming there is still alcohol in your system when you go to bed, then the alcohol is still suppressing your vasopressin, meaning your kidneys will continue to just send all that water you drank to your bladder anyway!
So pounding a bunch of water before bed won’t do anything to help any mild dehydration you might experience the next day, and even if it did, it wouldn’t have an appreciable effect on the quality of your morning anyway. It is more likely to make you wake up in the middle of the night to pee, meaning you’ll probably just get a worse night’s sleep!
Myth #5: Alcohol helps you sleep
While it’s true that alcohol can help you fall asleep initially, it causes all kinds of mayhem in your brain that continually causes your sleep cycle to be interrupted throughout the night (citation). So even if you get a full 8 hours, you’ll very likely wake up feeling groggy and unrested.
In addition, that crazy mayhem that’s happening in your brain while you sleep results in a bunch of rebound effects the next day. Think of it as a pendulum swinging back and forth. You won’t just be dealing with the effects of poor sleep the next day. You could also be experiencing cognitive defects throughout the day as your brain chemistry re-normalizes. A good example of this is a study that showed people were actually significantly worse drivers when hungover (citation).
Myth #6: A little “hair of the dog” will cure what ails you
So you’ve decided to have your fun at night and pay the piper in the morning. However, nothing seems to make the morning bearable. Your headache is pounding, every little noise is like a cannon shot ricocheting inside your head, and the sunlight streaming through your curtains is blinding. Some friends may recommend a steady diet of water, sports drinks, greasy food, or aspirin/ibuprofen. Still others suggest turning to the “hair of the dog,” or drinking more alcohol to feel better.
None of these substances are much help, and some, like the “hair of the dog” method, will most likely make your symptoms worse by inhibiting your body’s natural recovery from alcohol consumption the night before. While the effects of alcohol may mask some of the symptoms, you’re really just kicking the can down the road, because once you sober up from your hair of the dog, you’ll be feeling everything you drank the night before PLUS whatever you drank in the morning. This will not do you or your body any favors, and it will likely exacerbate the problem.
6 Practices That Actually Work
While the above myths (and many others) continue to pervade the public consciousness, there are some tried and true methods based on sound science that are always good to keep in mind when drinking:
- Drink plenty of water while drinking. This is not to combat dehydration, but more to help you pace yourself as well as support your organs (such as your liver and kidneys) that are working overtime to deal with the alcohol you’re ingesting.
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach. See Myth #3. It won’t sober you up, but having food in your stomach will slow down the rate of alcohol absorption from drinks you drink after you eat. It can also help minimize stomach and gut irritation caused by alcohol (and its unwanted byproduct, acetaldehyde).
- Pace yourself. You break down alcohol at a given rate. The slower you drink, the better chance your body has of keeping up. 4 drinks in one hour will hit you harder than 4 drinks in 4 hours.
- Make important decisions before you start drinking. Decisions like how much you’re going to drink, when you’re going to stop drinking, and how you’re going to get home. Don’t rely on drunk-you to make good decisions; drunk-you has much worse judgement than sober-you. Trust sober-you.
- Get plenty of sleep and stop drinking earlier. Alcohol causes poor quality sleep, so even if you get a full 8 hours, it won’t feel as good as if you slept sober. In addition, since often we stay out late drinking, 6 hours of drunk sleep is obviously much worse than 8 hours of sober sleep. And if you can, stop drinking a couple of hours before going to bed to give your body time to metabolize the alcohol before you sleep. The less alcohol in your body while you sleep, the better. For example, if you plan to stay out with your friends until the bar closes at 2am, cut yourself off at midnight and spend the last two hours of the night riding the wave of your previous drinks. You don’t need those 1:39am last-call shots; they won’t hit you until after the bar is closed and you’re headed home anyway. Instead, you can go to bed significantly more sober and get better quality sleep, rather than just getting more drunk while you lie in bed.
- The next morning, go about your normal routines or follow through on plans you’ve made. Anxiety and depression from drinking the previous night are real (citation), and they can be compounded by flaking out on your plans. Best to suck it up and get on with your life!
One Final Note
Human beings were never meant to drink alcohol. For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors were only exposed to alcohol when they happened to eat fruit that was a few days too old. But then, a few thousand years ago, we discovered controlled fermentation…. And a trillion-plus casks of mead, beer, wine, and liquor later, alcohol is now an integral part of global life.
The problem is that our bodies never caught up. We evolved to that pre-fermentation reality, which means we’re just not well-adapted to processing alcohol in anything above incidental quantities. And if the proliferation of drinking myths is any indication, people have been suffering the consequences for thousands of years.
The tips we’ve outlined above are some of the best practices humanity has been able to come up with without the benefit of technology. They are largely based around the idea that if given enough time, our bodies can deal with the alcohol. However, if our bodies are not perfect at dealing with alcohol, they are even less equipped to deal with one of the byproducts of alcohol: acetaldehyde.
Acetaldehyde is even worse for us (citation), and until we started fermenting and drinking alcohol intentionally, we rarely ran into this molecule at all. As such, until quite recently our bodies had little need to evolve to deal with acetaldehyde. But acetaldehyde is actually the root cause of some of the worst next-day misery after drinking (citation). So while you could use the tips above to deal with alcohol’s direct effects, there really wasn’t much you could do about the acetaldehyde… until now. We looked at that problem and thought science should step in.
We used bioengineering to create a probiotic that targets and breaks down acetaldehyde. It's the world's first bioengineered probiotic, and the first ingredient that can actively break down acetaldehyde. With this new technology, we hope to provide one more tool to the responsible alcohol behaviors outlined above, so we can deal with both alcohol and acetaldehyde, helping make sure you land on your feet the next morning. Find out more about the product, how it fits into a responsible drinking regime, and the underlying science here.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice.