In 2006, a man walked into an emergency room in Glasgow, Scotland, complaining of blurred vision and a splitting headache that had lasted for nearly a month.
Doctors were stumped at first—the man had no history of head trauma. But after a bit of prodding, the patient copped to the root cause of his agony: He had recently consumed 60 pints of beer over the course of four days. It turns out the man was suffering from what medical science might consider the worst hangover in recent history.
This New Year's Eve, many of us might hope to avoid the Scottish man's fate. A trickier question is exactly how to accomplish that while still partaking of all the merriment of your standard New Year's Eve soiree.
One problem is that scientists don't entirely know what causes hangovers—it has a bit to do with the way the body metabolizes alcohol, but there might be an immune response and other factors at play, too. And alcohol affects everyone differently. Women, for example, get drunk faster and on less alcohol than men do because of differences in size, body water composition, and enzymes. On top of that, personal differences can also influence whether we get hangovers. The use of other drugs and even a family history of alcoholism can determine whether or not we feel the "gallon distempers" the next morning.
The limited scientific hangover research that exists is clear on one point: If you don't want a hangover, you shouldn't drink. (Or at least, don't have more than one or two drinks per day.) Still, various studies have suggested a few ways that one might minimize one's odds of developing a hangover, if one is really determined to ring in 2015 with abandon and one's boss would not give one the day off on January 1. (Sigh. Typical one's boss.)
Certain compounds called congeners seem to be a factor in hangovers, according to a few studies conducted in the 1970s. Whisky, brandy, and red wine contain more congeners than clear alcohol, so make like a Real Housewife and pour yourself martinis and white-wine spritzers. In one experiment, 33 percent of people who drank bourbon experienced a hangover, compared with only 3 percent of people who drank the same amount of vodka.
- Those who stick only to beer, though, might truly be in the clear. One study found that it took up to 13 or 14 beers to produce a hangover in Dutch college students, compared to seven or so for liquor. Still, another study of Danish tourists found that 68 percent of those who drank 12 or more units of various types of alcohol the previous night woke up hungover, regardless.
- A review published in 2000 found that for men, five to seven cocktails, consumed over the course of four to six hours, is “almost always followed by hangover symptoms.” For women, it's more like three to five cocktails.
- That same review found that other factors that increase hangovers include drinking on an empty stomach, not getting enough sleep, not drinking enough water, and, interestingly, being physically active while drunk.
- Two small studies separately found that people who took vitamin B6 or tolfenamic acid, a prescription migraine drug, had fewer hangover symptoms the next morning than a control group.
- Dehydration is part of, but not the sole cause of, the hangover. Drinking water may help, but only a little. Similarly, no studies have substantiated the idea that you should imbibe "the grape or the grain, but never the twain"—it's more likely that people who start out with hard alcohols lose track of how much they're drinking more quickly. The most important factors seem to be how much you drink overall and how fast you drink it.
If you somehow manage to forget these rules after your fourth glass of champagne and eleventieth Fireball shot, just know that you're in good company. Hangovers have been documented since the dawn of time. In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink." Woe unto them, indeed.