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Hung Over? Wake Up and Smell -- or Drink -- the Coffee

April 13, 2011 By:
Diane McManus
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Michael Oshinsky

You never meant to overindulge. But an evening out with friends made you forget. Another beer? Another glass of wine?

No problem -- or so you thought.

Perhaps you are given to migraines, but it was a stressful day, and the time with friends felt like magic. Nothing bad could happen in such a setting, could it? The next day, though, you awaken with a crushing headache.

So what to do now? After hitting snooze on your alarm clock, should you reach for the phone to call in sick? Or make another drink, reasoning that "a hair of the dog that bit you" will make you better?

Correct answer: neither.

Before you make that call or that "hair of the dog" drink, brew a cup of coffee and (if you're not allergic) take an aspirin. If coffee doesn't appeal to you, try cola, tea or one of those caffeinated energy drinks your kids seem to thrive on.

Why? According to Michael Oshinsky, assistant professor of neurology and director of preclinical research at the Jefferson University Headache Center, you will start to feel better.

The journey to this discovery had nothing to do with a hangover, although this was the piece of his research that has caused the stir in the media. Oshinsky's original interest was in headache relief.

In the process of conducting this research, he first learned something about the causes of headaches -- and, in particular, one culprit: acetate. Kidney dialysis patients given this substance during treatments tended to develop headaches.

Further, alcohol, once ingested, is converted by the liver first to acetaldehyde -- a poisonous substance -- and then to acetate.

A study that Oshinsky, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, with a doctorate from Cornell University and a B.S. from Brandeis University, co-authored, "Acetate Causes Alcohol Hangover in Rats," supports this hypothesis. In this study, rats were infused with either an "inflammatory soup" (to increase their sensitivity to headaches and simulate the conditions leading to migraine) or saline (to maintain normal sensitivity).

No Laughing Matter

These rats were then given a variety of substances, including ethanol (the human equivalent of a single drink), acetate and caffeine. Since acetate spurs the production of adenosine, caffeine -- an antagonist of adenosine -- was administered to the rats and their ensuing response observed.

Sensitized rats showed a more pronounced reaction to the ethanol and the acetate, suggesting that humans prone to migraines were also at greater risk of developing hangovers.

Some might trivialize hangovers -- the Puritan thinking that those who overindulge should suffer the consequences. Often, the sufferer is the butt of jokes. However, Oshinsky believes that they are no laughing matter.

He cites Jeffrey Wise, Michael Shipak and Warren Browner's article, "The Alcohol Hangover," which details not only the costs in job performance and absenteeism, but also the health risks -- hangovers can have potentially fatal consequences, and moderate drinkers are more likely to experience them.

Furthermore, the notion that another alcoholic drink will relieve the symptoms was certainly not borne out by research.

Oshinsky cautions against "preventive coffee," explaining that "caffeine leaves the system faster than acetate."

"It's better to sleep it off," he says, "and drink the coffee the next morning."

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