Key Learning Points
- How Chinese medicine diagnoses a hangover
- Different diagnoses, different treatments
- What you can do to help
- What to avoid
Why do you get a hangover?
Well … you probably drink more alcohol than people who don’t get a hangover, and you drink more than you can handle at the time – to state the obvious.
(Why ‘at the time’? Because when you’re tired or stressed your body’s reaction to alcohol may differ from when you’re in good energy and relaxed. The same applies as you get older.)
Alcohol is classified as a poison in Chinese medicine and too much of it overwhelms your system.
How your liver metabolises the alcohol relates to your health. Your health relates to your lifestyle, history of disease (including drinking alcohol) and inherited (genetic) makeup.
The result of over-stretching your liver is usually diagnosed in Chinese medicine as a form of heat.
‘Heat’ as a kind of disease is common and may become more so if global warming affects you. Click here to find out more.
This causes what is called ‘Liver qi stagnation’. The symptoms of this include irritability, moodiness, and tension in the head or shoulders. It also causes ‘Liver Yang rising’ – thumping headache, tinnitus, sensitivity to light and strong odours.
The Liver is said to ‘invade’ the Stomach giving ‘rebellious Stomach Qi’ – symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, burning, bowel disturbances and abdominal distension.
Minimising the likelihood of a hangover
Long-term heat in the liver causes cirrhosis – destruction of the liver. The liver has regenerative powers but heavy drinkers overwhelm them. Abstinence and ‘healthy’ living for long periods might be necessary to give even mild damage time to heal.
Gross damage is hard to heal.
Any constitution can be overwhelmed by excess alcohol taken too often, but previously very healthy people (good lifestyle, good genes) have to work harder at it! It helps if they develop poor self-discipline and poor self-awareness. It can also help if they have narcissistic tendencies and self-image problems, or if their judgement is clouded by taking other drugs.
People with poor genes and lifestyle either get ill and succumb faster. Or they learn not to indulge so much by controlling their intake. If they learn this they may outlive their healthier but rasher colleagues!
Don’t assume that continued bouts of alcohol-drinking leading to what seem like milder hangover symptoms are a sign of increasing resilience. Healthy people and people unaccustomed to alcohol usually produce strong symptoms: years of determined drinking weaken the liver’s ability to react.
The depth of the disease … to be a bit technical for a moment …
At this point (to get a bit technical) the depth in the body where the disease process manifests has gone deeper, is more serious and will take longer to cure.
It’s like how some asthmatics who take inhalers don’t appear to catch colds. With these asthmatics, the disease process has ceased to be available at the exterior level of the nose, the throat, cough, sneeze etc and has lodged deeper: harder to cure and requires continued medication to palliate.
Alcoholics often don’t have hangovers, because they keep drinking: it’s when they stop that their problems begin.
For more click on Disease Process.
OK Relax again …
However, of course as you grow up, your liver organ increases in size so can tolerate more alcohol than that of a child. But a child’s liver is comparatively innocent and fresh and reacts vigorously to the poison. That’s actually a healthy reaction!
Symptoms vary from person to person. However, if the diagnosis of ‘heat’ causing Liver Qi stagnation, Liver Yang excess and rebellious Stomach Qi is appropriate, then Chinese medicine can help. That’s because these are all signs of what is called ‘excess’ in Chinese medicine, (ie a kind of ‘Yang Excess’), so anything which reduces Yang, or makes it move around and, to a lesser extent balances it with ‘Yin’ – will help.
(If all this Yin and Yang stuff is a bit perplexing, try reading the page on Yin and Yang.)
For rebellious Stomach Qi, anything swallowed (including food, painkillers and herbs) should normally not be taken with cold or iced water, but with warm water with a slice of ginger in it.
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Hangover Prevention – What to do beforehand!
- Keep fit and take plenty of exercise, eat good food (including protein) with consideration for your Stomach and digestion. Read some of what Chinese medicine thinks of good nutrition here.
- Cultivate good sleep. Insomnia? Click here.
- Avoid too much stress. Stress? Click here.
- Vigorous dancing is a good form of exercise between drinking.
- Don’t take alcohol if you are already tired: tiredness is a sign that your Stomach energy is deficient. Drowning it in alcohol when it, and you, are tired – as after a long day’s work – means it won’t digest so well, and you’ll be more prone to suffer. If you are tired, first rest, or sleep for 20 minutes: then eat a sensible meal. Only after your energy has recovered, set out to drink. (And then, ideally, drink in moderation – but you hardly need that advice if you’re determined to get drunk!)
- To avoid a hangover, take alcohol with food, and take it over a long period of time, interspersed with exercise. Don’t drink lots on its own in a short period of time.
- Before, during and after drinking alcohol, drink plenty of water.
- Exercise after alcohol and before bed to help ward off Liver Qi stagnation and ‘burn off’ heat. However, exercise carefully – I don’t mean lifting weights! I mean take a fast walk, where you get a bit out of breath for 20 minutes.
About that vigorous exercise …
- NB vigorous exercise immediately before going to sleep is not usually a good idea because it increases Yang energy too much, and to sleep you need less Yang and more Yin. Still, in this situation of over-drinking it may be a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils, because the extra oxygen you take up when walking fast will help you metabolise the alcohol, and the exercise will help to burn off a few calories. So after taking the fast walk, walk sedately for a while, to allow yourself to cool and calm down. (Make sure you have enough clothes to prevent yourself from getting cold, however – alcohol upsets your bodily temperature controls and it’s easy to lose body-heat.)
- Have a good bowel movement before going to bed. Why? Because what used to be called ‘purging’ helps clear heat, and the less heat-forming ‘stuff’ you have inside your bowels, the less heat you’ll develop in your sleep. I do not recommend laxatives, however, as these may not work immediately, and could force you from your bed just as you are getting to sleep. In bed, make sure that you can vary the number of bed-clothes easily. If you are too hot, reduce them, but not so much or for so long that you wake cold, or worse, cramped.
- Good treatment (eg with acupuncture) may be able gradually to improve your health so your hangover occurs less often or less badly. More likely it will just help you to recover faster. (What does acupuncture aim to do? Depending on the diagnosis, eg, Liver Qi stagnation, Damp-Heat, etc, it aims to move the Qi and clear the damp and heat: there are acupuncture treatments for these conditions. Acupuncture doesn’t claim to treat the hangover itself, just the syndromes recognised in Chinese Medicine which arise as a result of the hangover.
Dealing with a hangover
If you’ve followed this explanation of what happens in terms of Chinese medicine,when you get a hangover, the following will make more sense:
- Liver Qi Stagnation: take exercise. That’s the best and fastest way to clear it. You don’t have to exhaust yourself, just walk, though the more vigorous you are (… well, up to a point) the faster it will clear. Also drink lots of water. A banana may help. Ideally, walk fast enough to get out of breath, and for at least 20 minutes.
- Liver Yang rising: this usually occurs with some other syndromes too, particularly Liver Blood deficiency and sometimes another syndrome called Liver Yin deficiency. (Symptoms of which include, if you can’t be bothered to click on the links: mild anxiety, mild depression, lack of direction in life, insomnia, dream-disturbed sleep, floaters in eyes, blurred vision, pale complexion and dizziness.)
- Both of these often occur because you haven’t looked after yourself properly in the past, making yourself more susceptible to Liver Yang rising. In these cases, a large meal, full of protein and carbohydrate, and vitamin pills, mainly vitamin B complex (failing which B6 and B12), will really help. (That’s assuming you don’t have Stomach Rebelling, meaning nausea, of course .)
- For the Liver Yang type of headache just mentioned, exercise probably won’t help much. Instead, rest, indeed sleep if possible. Rest here means semi-reclining, head uppermost, with the body and hands and feet covered but head uncovered. If hands or feet are very cold, warm them with a hot water bottle as this encourages circulation downwards rather than upwards.
Your Stomach Rebels!
- Stomach Qi rebelling: with this, the hangover comes with nausea, vomiting, and considerable aversion to food and drink. You probably have altered bowel movements and a headache across your forehead, where the Stomach channel reaches. If you can eat anything, make sure it is warm and has some ginger in it. In fact, boiling water poured over a slice of ginger root, allowed to stew and cool a bit, then sipped, may help to quell your stomach rebellion.
- [One hangover cure is said to be a British breakfast ‘fry-up’ consisting of fried bacon, eggs, bread and possibly mushroom, though recipes vary. This would not work for everyone, as it depends on the particular nature of the individual’s energy syndrome. It would probably make a Stomach Damp-Heat syndrome worse, for example, but might help if there is a lack of Stomach Fire, if the individual eats slowly. But it depends.]
- WATER. It helps to flush the poisons out. Water is cooling which combats the Heat from the alcohol. It is usually easy to drink. You may find it easier to take it warmed, with a little ginger.
- Other cooling substances that may be worth trying include:
- Aloe Vera (but don’t expect it to taste nice)
- Coconut milk (the milk inside the coconut) which is cooling but contains minerals you probably need, like potassium
- Rooibos or Rooibosch tea if taken warm is mildly cooling, and has nutrients that assist your Liver.
- Avoid too many hot type foods
Other Advice on your Hangover!
Avoid coffee and caffeine because they tend to send energy upwards, further draining your Yin reserves. So coffee is particularly bad for Liver Yang rising headaches. (For very short periods, it may make you feel more positive, but this nearly always fools you, because it doesn’t last. Then you feel worse, and probably nauseous too, as it stimulates your Liver to ‘attack’ your Stomach, producing nausea. Sorry.)
Avoid strong spices because they make you sweat; also they heat you up temporarily. Although alcohol has made you hot, sweating heavily cools you too fast. Spices are particular examples of hot foods. Avoid them.
Frequent Hangovers often lead to this …
People who often gets hangovers (and some people who have a constitutional tendency to them) may suffer from what in Chinese Medicine is called ‘Damp-Heat’: breath and stools smell foul, pain is burning, secretions are yellow or dark, athlete’s foot is worse, tongue has dirty yellow coating, head feels heavy: you feel weary and stiff.
You could also have a urinary infection or damp sores in ‘concealed’ areas. To treat this requires rather specialised treatment if using herbs. (Such herbs are commonly bitter, astringent and cold in nature. They don’t take nice!) Acupuncture is often good too.
There are herbs that work. But people needing them often don’t persist for long enough. (We’ve been spoiled by fast-acting painkillers.)
- Cayenne thins the blood and this can reduce pain and help blood flow better
- Meadowsweet is anti-inflammatory
- Chamomile relaxes muscles and tension
- Valerian is a good sedative
- Mint helps Qi flow but is rather warming – which is not what most hangover sufferers want – so only suits some people
- A Chinese medicine herb to soothe the Liver is chrysanthemum flower (steeped in boiling water). A Western herb that can do this is yarrow.
Keep Warm! Even if you feel hot, don’t get cold
- Avoid getting cold. If you find yourself sweating when cold, wear more clothing, walk fast enough or exercise to get warm, or take a warm bath to warm up. This is to avoid catching a cold or fever.
- In case of heat in the head, cold compresses may help, especially to the neck. If you feel very hot all over, apply cold compresses behind your knees.
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- Go to an acupuncturist or someone who understands how acupuncture works and can use that knowledge in treating you. Or a homoeopath. Or a herbalist. Or a practitioner who has the power to enable you to sleep restfully for a little while – depending on which kind of hangover you have.
- If you know how to make a ‘homoeopathic-style’ dilution potency of the alcohol you’ve been drinking, you can try it: however, this will not be homoeopathy but isopathy that you’ll be trying, and the rules for it aren’t as clear as in homoeopathy. To read more about how homoeopathy works, click here.
Just an aside on acupuncture …
Why does acupuncture work?
Well, let’s be straight! Nobody knows for certain, though I can assure you that it’s a question people are racing to find an answer for.
Traditional acupuncture relies on a knowledge of acupuncture pathways, channels or meridians. Understanding where these go, both on the surface of your body and inside it, and how each pathway reacts with the other pathways, gives an experienced acupuncturist what can seem like miraculous powers.
Well they aren’t miraculous nor is there a special power. There is, however, knowledge of theory and practice and the ability to discover which channels are active and where to find the active points on the channel in question.
The active point may or may not be a traditional acupuncture point, described in textbooks. And it may need to be treated in a very particular way to get the best effect.
For research purposes this can make it hard to replicate over hundreds of cases, when even if the acupuncture point is the same for all of them (extremely unlikely) how you needle it, the direction, depth and stimulus may be different for everyone participating.
In other words, needling the point in the ‘ordinary’ way, might have little effect, or at least much less effect than if needled right – for that patient.
Avoid these foods
If you have sensitivity to foods containing tyramine or phenylalanine, don’t take them. These include:
- alcohol (!)
- bananas, even though they contain potassium, which you may be short of
- chocolate, which contains milk and sugar, but avoid it mainly because it contains caffeine, like coffee which tends to send energy upwards, back to your head, probably the last place you want more energy!
In addition, if you read the ideas above about Heat, avoid Heating foods, such as spicy food, fat food, rich food, and roasted food. Many forms of meat are also heating, including beef and lamb. Chicken is less heating, as is fish.
If you use a hangover to forget your problems …
Perhaps you should read my book on Qi Stagnation which talks about better ways to deal with stress and how to manage your life.