Your stomach’s shaky, your thinking’s muddled and your head feels like someone clobbered it with a baseball bat while you slept. Hangovers are rough. And when it comes to speeding up your post-binge recovery, there are about as many purported cures—greasy food! A hot sauna! Chugging Pedialyte!—as there are liquor bottles lined up at your local bar.
But what actually works? It helps to understand exactly what’s causing you to feel so junky in the first place.
“I like to think of a hangover as a mini withdrawal syndrome,” says George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. When you drink, your brain experiences an uptick in feel-good neurotransmitters, Koob explains. Swallow enough booze, and the resulting comedown from that massive surge of intoxicating chemicals may switch on pro-stress and pro-inflammation responses that cause or contribute to your feelings of queasiness, headache and other “flu-like symptoms,” Koob says. As you age, these responses may become more pronounced, he adds.
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Other factors that contribute to your hangover are the additives or ingredients in your drink. Koob uses the term “congeners” to refer to any substances other than water and alcohol produced during the fermentation of your adult beverage. A drink’s congener content may exacerbate some of the pro-inflammatory or withdrawal-like responses he mentioned above.
In general, more flavorful liquors—think bourbon or cognac—tend to have more congeners than clear, mild liquors like vodka. Also, “organic wine generally has less congeners added to it compared to standard wine,” says Chris Alford, an associate professor of psychology at University of the West of England who has performed several studies on hangovers. As for beer, some unfiltered craft beers may have higher congener contents than lighter, less-flavorful brews, though that’s not always the case.
“Everyone has different sensitivities to congeners,” Koob says. While a few bourbons or a particular beer may leave you feeling like garbage, your pal may be able to drink the same amount and type of booze without much of a hangover. Still, avoiding lots of congeners may be a good way to dodge a hangover, Koob says.
That’s helpful if you’re aware enough to plan ahead. But can anything actually speed your recovery once you’re mired in a nasty hangover?
Rehydrating is a good start. “Alcohol is a diuretic,” Koob says. So the more your drink, the more water you lose in the form of urine. That means drinking water and electrolyte-infused beverages like Gatorade may help you bounce back from some hangover symptoms, Koob says.
While it sounds painful, going for a run or workout should also help clear your head and quell your symptoms. Exercise helps “kick start your metabolism,” which increases blood flow and hurries your body’s clearance of alcohol-related toxins from your bloodstream and body tissues, Alford says.
“Getting a good meal down and getting a shower, or really any active things, will speed blood flow and the removal of accumulated alcohol byproducts,” Koob adds, “which will help you when you’re feeling lousy.”
A daylong movie marathon on your couch may sound a lot more appealing. But the longer you laze around doing nothing, the longer it will take your system to jettison the stuff that’s making you feel so bad.