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31st December 2000

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Hangovers - why do we get them?

History is awash with eccentric remedies to cure those who slump into a drunken stupor, waking with the Mother of all Hangovers and a body that has turned to jelly.

According to researchers, who have selflessly studied hangovers in depth, there are so many factors involved that a cure probably is unattainable; but there are a few things that can help. So, what happens when we assault our bodies with too much booze?

After you swig down your drink, the liquid's first stop is the stomach. As it sloshes around, some alcohol gets broken down and a small amount passes through the stomach wall, into the bloodstream and on to the brain. Here, neuropeptides, believed to control sensitivity to alcohol and mood, swing into action. Dependent on your state of mind you may begin to feel more confident, relaxed or aggressive; i.e. intoxicated.

If you don't have much food in your stomach, a ring-shaped muscle called the pyloric valve opens and your drink pours into the small intestine. Due to its much greater surface area, the small intestine allows alcohol to be absorbed far more rapidly, leading to sudden and powerful intoxication.

Foods containing sugars and fats tend to keep the pyloric valve closed while the stomach digests them hence the time-honoured idea that a glass of milk will line your stomach. A high-fat meal consumed with a bottle of wine will keep the pyloric valve shut for hours while the stomach digests the food. Your blood-alcohol level will rise relatively slowly.

The alcohol in booze is a mixture of ethanol and methanol, the wood alcohol found in antifreeze and paint thinners. Methanol is found in some fruit-based alcoholic drinks such as red wine, cognac or plum brandy, which can contain up to two percent methanol by volume. Spirits such as vodka contain least.

The liver breaks down alcohols in a strict order. First ethanol is processed at a nearly constant rate about 15 millilitres of ethanol per hour roughly the amount in a small glass of wine.

In cells called hepatocytes, enzymes convert ethanol initially into a poisonous substance called acetaldehyde, which leads to a queasy feeling and throbbing head, then into relatively harmless acetic acid. This is drained from the liver, via the kidneys, to the bladder.

Scientists at the National Laboratory of Forensic Toxicology in Link_ping, Sweden, found that when the liver gets around to clearing out the methanol, which is processed about ten times more slowly, the by-products are extremely toxic formaldehyde, (used in embalming fluid), and formic acid, which causes the most severe hangover symptoms.

The Swedish research goes some way to justify the 'hair of the dog' remedy a drop more booze eases a hangover by making the liver revert to the less gut-wrenching ethanol processing, stopping the build-up of formic acid. Relief is temporary, however, because methanol breakdown resumes later.

In addition free radicals, unstable compounds generated by the metabolism of alcohol, build up in the liver. Free radicals are usually mopped up by the enzyme glutathione, but after heavy drinking, reserves run low.

Glutathione is made up of cysteine, a sulphur-rich amino acid which is found in eggs. This gives a clue to the success of some age-old hangover cures, such as prairie oysters, omelettes and the English fried breakfast. So maybe Pliny knew a thing or two about the 'morning-after.'

Elsewhere around the body's battered battleground the alcohol breaks down reserves of energy-rich blood sugar glycogen into glucose, leading to hypoglycaemia and the weak and wobbly effect of a hangover.

One of the worst symptoms of the hangover is caused by dehydration. Ethanol is a diuretic. It acts on the brain's pituitary gland and blocks production of the hormone vasopressin, which directs the kidneys to reabsorb water that would otherwise end up in the bladder. Once this hormonal hydrostat is switched off, the line outside the restroom just gets longer and longer.

The body then suffers electrolyte loss: essential ions, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium key to the way nerves and muscles work are washed out of the body, causing headaches, nausea and fatigue.

Faced with drought, the body borrows water from other parts, including the brain, which shrinks temporarily. Though the brain cannot sense pain, its protective membrane, the dura, shrivels, stretching pain-sensitive filaments connecting it to the skull and causing pounding headaches. So drink plenty of water before bed.

As if this is not enough, alcohol also upsets the flow of electrolyte ions through the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain cells, dulling the senses and giving that 'foggy' morning-after feeling.

Why, oh why, do we do it to ourselves?

Courtesy - Graphic News

Channelling energy for the New Year

Don't celebrate yourself to a standstill. Diet, daylight and even deep breathing can help you make it through to New Year.

Shopping and dancing, late nights, cooking, wrapping and pan- icking. You are probably feeling exhausted just thinking about it. But there are ways of ensuring you have enough energy to make it through at least till midnight on New Year's Eve.

First, you need to get organised. "Become your own life manager," says Professor Stephen Palmer, the director of the Centre for Stress Management in the U.K. "If you leave things to the last moment, you'll be exhausted and make your own life hell." It's boring, but your need to work out what you can achieve, then make a to do list with a countdown to the big day. Don't try to be a superhero and do everything - that's the way to tire yourself out and damage your immune system.

To give you physical energy, you need to eat properly and regularly. "The key is to eat a mixture of the food groups carbohydrates, protein and fat which will help keep blood glucose levels as consistent as possible," says Ian Marber, a clinical nutritionist and author of The Food Doctor in the City. Key nutrients for energy are the B vitamins, found in foods such as wholegrains, chicken, tuna, swordfish, and beans. So make sure you eat enough of these. Marber also recommends taking extra B vitamins at times of stress.

Critical times to eat sensibly are before drinking, and before and during a stressful day's shopping, to avert the temptation to scoff junk food. "Ideally, your pre-drink snack should be protein plus high fibre carbohydrate, to slow the absorption of alcohol." When you're shopping, make sure you have some energy giving protein for breakfast and lunch. Avoid coffee, as it just gives a temporary high followed by a slump. Instead, go for peppermint or another herbal tea, which will give you a lift and keep your hydration levels ups, vital at this boozy time of year.

In fact, Palmer says, "it's best to go easy on the alcohol. Fizz may give you a short term buzz, but it leaves you feeling physically and emotionally flat the next day. Alcohol is basically a simple sugar, so it makes blood sugar levels flucture wildly, leading to cravings". "In general," says Marber, "red wine is a better choice than carbonated drinks, which make the alcohol enter your bloodstream faster, or sugary cocktails." If you do drink cocktails, go for ones containing lots of nutrient rich juices, such as seabreeze (vodka, cranberry juice and grapefruit juice).

As alcohol consumption - and hangovers - peak at this time of year, exercise regimes tend to go into decline. Exercise is vital at this time of year, and even if you can't fit in a full gym workout, you can do enough to keep you feeling active. "Walking is the perfect exercise at this busy time of year," says Pete Cohen, a sports psychologist. To make your walk more of a workout, he recommends you carry handweights (or tins of canned food) and walk at a brisk pace that gets you warm and raises your heart rate. To get motivated to go out, says Cohen, you need to think about the consequences of your actions. "Imagine how you'll feel if you stay on the sofa pretty tired, with no energy, slumped. Then imagine how you'll feel if you move your body; happier, brighter, more cheerful, full of life." Exercise has other benefits: taking in more oxygen helps the digestive process, boosts circulation, increases the amount of fuel going to the muscles, and helps burn up food more quickly. "Even better," says Cohen, "it may help regulate blood sugar levels, so if you've been eating lots of sugary foods, you won't get the usual low energy slump."

If you haven't even got 10 minutes, and you're feeling knackered, try an instant energy booster. "The root of energy is good breathing," says Jane Alexander, a holistic health expert and author of Energy Secret. "Your breath is the fastest and most effective way of cutting tension and rejuvenating yourself." She recommends a yogic breathing exercise called the victorious breath, or ujjayi. Begin by breathing in deeply, contracting the muscles around the top of your windpipe. This should make a gentle hissing noise. As you breathe out, close the muscles around your epiglottis, the top of your throat; this makes you sound like Darth Vader. Breathe six times like this, then six times normally. Repeat four times. A simple exercise, and one you can do when shopping without getting stared at, is just to stop what you're doing, stand still and concentrate on deep, slow breathing for a few minutes. Having the right attitude and keeping a sense of humour are also essential for surviving the season.

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