A brief history of the hangover

For the last 12, 000 years (at least) humans have been purposefully mixing fermented grain drinks, possibly even before the development of bread as a dietary staple. Almost every settled community across the globe has developed a form of alcohol and ceremonies based around the drinking of it. And ever since mankind discovered the wonders of fermented plant matter, humanity has also suffered the indignity of the hangover.

Egyptian hieroglyphics depict the pouring out of beer. Credit: WikiCommons

The term hangover only came to commonly apply to the aftereffects of a night of drinking around the turn of the 20th century. Before then, phrases such as the “morning fog” or “blue-devils” were used colloquially, and the phrase “bottle-ache” appears in several doctors’ notes from the mid-1800s.

In the UK, it was calculated that alcohol and the resulting days lost to hangovers accounted for almost £2.55 billion in lost wages. In Finland, over 1 million workdays are thought to be lost a year to hangovers, which is impressive considering the population is only 5 million.

One of the oldest and most persistent cures for a hangover has been to have another drink. The phrase “hair of the dog that bit you” comes from a Middle Ages remedy for a rabid dog bite, in which the patient drinks a concoction of honey, wine and the hair of the suspect canine. Not unexpectedly, this is an ineffective rabies treatment. However many will swear by it as a hangover remedy.

Dionysus, Greek god of wine, beer and inebriation. Credit: WikiCommons

In Ancient Egypt, the goddess of beer was known as Nephthys. She would answer drunken revellers’ prayers with the gift of vomiting, apparently allowing them to be hangover-free the next day. The Greeks had several gods of inebriation, from the most famous Dionysus and his son Comus, to the more beer and grain-specific such a Sabazios and Demeter. Drinking vessels can be found etched with prayers to Dionysus asking for the drinker to be blessed with a hangover-free morning after.

Pliney the Elder took some time to advise his fellow Romans on what to do after a night of overindulgence. His go-to cure was raw owls eggs, though he also recommends a nice fried canary with salt and pepper to taste. However he advises that drinkers are better to line their stomachs with a solid meal of roasted sheep’s intestine before a night on the town.

Sticking with the avian theme, ancient Assyrians would mix ground swallows’ beaks and myrrh whilst in Mesopotamia a mixture of myrrh, liquorice, cardamom, beans, oil and of course, wine was recommended to help shake off a particularly bad morning after. In Mongolia, pickled sheep’s’ eyes where the go-to restorative.

From a medicinal standpoint, eggs are a good source of the amino acid cystine which is key in the liver’s metabolism of alcohol by products. Meanwhile myrrh does appear to have some analgesic effects, at least on toothaches although the effects internally are somewhat less clear. There is, as yet, no medical opinion on pickled sheep’s eyes.

In Medieval England, normally the source of some of the worst medical advice on record, raw eel and boiled cabbage were the breakfast of choice after a night on the tiles. A spot of sushi and some veg doesn’t sound so bad.

By the end of the 17th century, branding begins to come into medicine. One of the more famous cure-alls on the market at the time was Goddard’s Drops. Developed by the physician Jonathan Goddard, they contained, among other things, ammonia, the crushed skull of a hanged man, dried viper and ivory. Goddard claimed his drops could cure everything from a hangover to bladder stones.

The trope of “throw a bucket of cold water over the sufferer” seems to appear in the early 1800s, along with drinking a glass of warm water and soot. A Victorian suggestion of rubbing vinegar on the temples seems particularly ineffective. Meanwhile out in the Wild West the cowboys developed something called “jackrabbit tea” made from rabbit droppings.

Hall’s Coca Wine: The Elixir of Life. Credit: WikiCommons

At the turn of the 20th century cocaine was in, and no good hangover cure was complete without it. A popular British drink called Hall’s Coca Wine combined both the hair of the dog with a hefty dose of coca leaves to make a “great restorative”. Also introduced in 1905, was a seasickness treatment called Mer-Syren, sold as a mystical herbal treatment from India,  but six years later the British Medical Association discovered it was nothing but powdered potatoes.

PG Wodehouse describes a drink made up of Worcestershire sauce, raw egg, tabasco and pepper, fed to a suffering Bertie Wooster by the manservant Jeeves in the his 1916 short story Jeeves Takes Charge. This is practically a Prairie Oyster (minus the vodka), a cocktail developed back in 1878 New York as a pick me up for those having a particularly rough morning.

Famous drinker Kingsley Amis published his book On Drink in 1972. In this he described the metaphysical (ie, nagging feelings of guilt and self-loathing) aspects of a hangover as much worse than the physical. He recommends getting your mental house in order to better sort out your physical self. For the body though he suggests trying beefpaste and vodka, or baking soda and vodka or tomato juice and vodka. You may be noticing a trend. He also suggests vigorous sex if you can find a willing partner.

During the Cold War, both the KGB and the CIA were rumoured to be developing pills that would allow their agents to drink without either getting drunk or suffering a hangover. Now several versions of these apparently anti-hangover pills, such as Chaser and Alcohol-X are on the market. They are based around the concept of activated charcoal, mostly using vegetable carbon to bind and filter “toxins”. None of these pills have been through any sort of thorough clinical trials, so whether or not they are effective is yet to be proven.

In 2009, a study by Newcastle University concluded that a full English breakfast is the best cure for a hangover. However the subjective nature of the beast means that it is hard to control from person to person and night to night what a hangover will become. Obviously the only way to avoid a hangover fully is not to drink. But if, for whatever reason, that seems unlikely, then staying hydrated, replacing electrolytes and getting lots of rest is the tried and tested option.

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