Plenty of us have been there: waking up after a night out with a thumping headache, feeling sick and swearing never to touch alcohol again. If only there were a way to prevent these terrible hangovers.
It isn’t uncommon for us to mix our drinks, maybe a beer in the pub before moving on to wine. Folk wisdom has something to say about this: “Beer before wine and you’ll feel fine; wine before beer and you’ll feel queer.”
This idea is very prevalent and versions of it occur in many languages. In my native country, Germany, for example, we say: “Wein auf Bier, das rat’ ich Dir—Bier auf Wein, das lass’ sein.” This translates as: “Wine on beer, I’ll advise you to drink beer on wine.”
But it turns out that there is no truth to these sayings, as we’ve just demonstrated in our latest study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In some ways, hangovers are a mystery. We know they’re caused by drinking too much alcohol and that symptoms occur when blood alcohol concentrations drop back to zero.
We know all too well what these symptoms are: headache, nausea, tiredness. We think their underlying causes include dehydration, the response of our immune system, and disturbances of our metabolism and hormones.
Hangovers cause us to be very unproductive. At the weekend, this might just mean lying in, feeling sorry for ourselves, watching TV instead of venturing out. But during the week it can mean missing work or study or performing poorly.
Little wonder, then, that we reach for anything that might reduce – or even prevent – a hangover. And with no effective hangover remedies, instead we rely on folk wisdom. Sometimes folk wisdom turns out to be wise, other times less so.
To look at whether the sayings around drinking were true and whether we could reduce our hangovers by drinking beer before wine, we carried out a study in Germany with 90 healthy volunteers, aged between 19 and 40.
We split our volunteers into three groups. The first group drank around two-and-a-half pints of lager followed by four large glasses of white wine. The second group drank the same amounts of alcohol, but in reverse order. Subjects in the third, control group consumed either only lager or only wine.
A week later, we switched participants in study groups one and two to the opposite drinking order. Control group subjects who drank only beer the first time around received only wine on the second study day, and vice versa. This way, the groups were not only compared with each other, but each participant was their own control, too.
While they were drinking, we asked our volunteers about their well-being at regular intervals and asked them to judge how drunk they felt on a scale of zero to ten at the end of each study day.
Before going to bed at the study site, we gave all our participants an amount of drinking water, tailored to their body weight. We kept all our volunteers under medical supervision overnight.
When they woke up, we asked our participants about their hangover and gave them a score from 0-56 on the so-called Acute Hangover Scale (yes, this exists) based on factors including thirst, fatigue, headache, dizziness, nausea, stomach ache, increased heart rate and loss of appetite.
Not the answer you were hoping for
You might find our results disappointing. We found that none of the three groups had a significantly different hangover score with different orders of alcoholic drinks. The folk wisdom doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Nor was there any way to predict how bad an individual’s hangover would be just from blood and urine tests, their age, sex, body weight, drinking habits or hangover frequency.
The only way to tell how bad the morning after the night before would be, it seems, was how drunk someone felt or whether they were sick – there are clear red flags we should all pay attention to.
We can all agree that hangovers are very unpleasant. In a sense, they are nature’s way of trying to protect us from ourselves. Surely we shouldn’t repeat behaviour that makes us feel this terrible? Really, though, there’s only one sure-fire way to prevent a hangover: drink responsibly.