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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Today in Your Health, we look at wages of sin and hopes for redemption in the New Year. First, the sin and the self-inflicted pain that comes from too much champagne.

NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX: The medical term is veisalgia. It means roughly the pain that follows debauchery. Understandably, some people don't like to own up to it.

Have you ever had a hangover?

Ms. JOYCE WALKER(ph): Excuse me?

KNOX: Have you ever had a hangover?

Ms. WALKER: Of course not, never.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KNOX: That's Joyce Walker(ph). We're at a holiday party near Boston. The hostess has just kindly consented to let me ask some impertinent questions.

Mr. CHARLIE EVETT: My name is Charlie Evett. I live in Concord, Massachusetts.

KNOX: Have you ever had a hangover?

Mr. EVETT: Oh yeah, a few. More than a few. I mean especially around festive occasions it does occur.

KNOX: Charlie Evett runs down a list of symptoms familiar to many others.

Mr. EVETT: Very bad headache and I feel very tired, sort of shaky.

KNOX: Sort of fragile?

Mr. EVETT: Oh, yes, very fragile, unable to move quickly, you know? As though prematurely aged. Though I needed a walker but I don't have one handy.

KNOX: What causes this whole body misery? Dr. Robert Swift of Brown University says there are three theories.

Dr. ROBERT SWIFT (Psychiatry, Brown University): The first theory is that hangover is a type of alcohol withdrawal.

KNOX: That's surprising. After only a few hours of drinking to excess, your body goes through the same kind of thing alcoholics experience when they stop drinking.

Swift says that's because alcohol sedates the brain. To compensate, the body puts out chemicals that excite the brain. They're still around the next morning.

Dr. SWIFT: You're left with the increased excitability for a period of time, and then it takes a while for that to go away.

KNOX: That explains the jitters, the sensitivity to light and sound, the racing pulse. The second theory of hangover involves something called conjoiners(ph). These chemicals are in many alcoholic drinks, especially darker colored ones.

The most evil is a type of alcohol called methanol. The liver breaks methanol down into formaldehyde.

Dr. SWIFT: Now, formaldehyde is embalming fluid. And when this gets in your blood, it makes people feel uncomfortable. It may contribute to the headache and some of the toxic symptoms of hangover.

KNOX: So when they say you're pickled, they're right. The third theory is that the main type of alcohol in beverages called ethanol is the culprit.

Dr. SWIFT: Alcohol is an irritant to the gastrointestinal tract.

KNOX: That's not all.

Dr. SWIFT: Alcohol in itself is dehydrating.

KNOX: Because it dials down a hormone that causes the body to retain water.

Dr. SWIFT: It also can disrupt biological rhythms, producing a kind of jet lag.

KNOX: So which theory explains the hangover?

Dr. SWIFT: I think they're actually all operative, which is why there's no one cure.

KNOX: But there are a lot of stories about what works, like this one from my friend Marylene Altieri.

Ms. MARYLENE ALTIERI: I was at a lovely dinner with friends at a very beautiful country restaurant outside of Geneva, Switzerland. Our host was ordering champagne and wine.

KNOX: After a while, all that alcohol caught up to her.

Ms. ALTIERI: My eyes were spinning around in my head. I was really, really, really gone.

KNOX: As her hostess put her to bed, she gave Marylene her favorite remedy.

Ms. ALTIERI: She said take these two pills, drink this tea, drink this water and you'll be fine in the morning - and I was. I was totally without hangover the next morning.

KNOX: The pills and tea contains silymarin, also known as milk thistle. Some recent research suggests it protects the liver, at least in people with acute hepatitis. But before you go out and buy milk thistle pills or try any of the dozens of other hangover remedies out there, keep this in mind: There's almost no rigorous research behind any of them.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

KNOX: These things do work: eat while you imbibe, pace your drinking; your liver can keep up with one drink an hour. Alternate alcohol with water and fruit juice. And if you take a painkiller before bed, stay away from products like Tylenol. It has an ingredient called acetaminophen that's toxic to the liver in combination with alcohol. Use a long-acting painkillers such as Aleve.

So here's to a cheery and pain-free morning after. Richard Knox, NPR News, Boston.

MONTAGNE: Not that we want to contribute to your hangover, but if you're looking for the best bubbly for New Year's Eve or a recipe for eggnog, you can go to npr.org and find it.

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