Every year, Oklahomans of Irish descent—and plenty without a lick of Irish blood—adorn themselves in green and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with Irish whiskey, green beer and other spirits.
And every year, those same Oklahomans wake up the next day with a raging headache, an upset stomach and the same thought in their heads: What have I done?
“Overindulging in alcohol isn’t unique to St. Patrick’s Day, of course, but a lot of people do their heaviest drinking of the year that day,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “And that means a lot of people will open their eyes the day after with their heaviest hangover of the year.”
Much like St. Patrick is credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland, hangovers are the result of our bodies trying to drive the toxins from alcohol out of our systems.
“There is a direct toxic effect of alcohol in our bodies,” he said. “Drink too much, and you end up with compounds in the blood that are very similar to those you find in the flu. That’s why a hangover is sometimes called ‘bottle flu.’”
The dry mouth drinkers often experience the morning after a binge is a symptom of dehydration, a staple of the hangover. Dehydration means you have a low blood volume, leading to dizziness and a racing pulse.
And if you think putting the drink in causes a problem, hold onto your leprechaun’s hat: Your body makes even more poison getting alcohol out of your system.
“Our bodies have lots of filters, which try to keep harmful materials out of dangerous places,” Prescott said. “Before it can be flushed from the system, alcohol has to be metabolized. So the liver turns parts of alcohol into toxic chemicals, which tend to hurt us on the way out.”
Two of the biggest offenders are acetaldehyde, a precursor to acetic acid, and formaldehyde. “Yes, your body turns alcohol into embalming fluid,” said Prescott.
But once the damage is done, don’t try to ward away the pain with a little “hair of the dog that bit you.” More alcohol will just stretch out the misery. Instead, Prescott said, the best thing to do is give your body what it’s missing.
“If you’re tired, get some rest. If you’re dehydrated, drink water. Or try fruit juice, so you’ll get vitamins and sugar,” he said. “If you’re not too nauseous, eat some food. But stay away from Tylenol for your headache; that’s just going to put more stress on your liver.”
Still, said Prescott, the best way to make March 18 bearable is not to over-indulge on March 17. “Don’t drink to excess, and you won’t have a hangover to worry about.”