Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall is literally writing a book on hangovers. In his research, he finds out what happens when… well, when you literally write a book on hangovers.
My family doctor is laughing at me. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever heard his laugh: a sort of dry Canadian chuckle, genuine amusement with a deep note of irony. We are discussing the possibility that I have somehow acquired an allergy to alcohol.
“Take me through it again,” he says, leaning forward, with a sense more of humour than concern. I seem to be the only one worried here.
“It happened first with the mimosas,” I say. “At breakfast….”
We were on vacation, my girlfriend Laura and I. Nothing extravagant — just a drive to a small town for a few days. And though drinking is an essential part of my job, I sometimes find myself doing more of it on vacation rather than less. I’m kind of a workaholic that way.
We golfed and ate and drank, and I ate and drank a lot. We were staying at an inn, and the day we were to leave they had a big buffet brunch, mimosas included. I don’t usually drink much orange juice, but mixed with champagne and a hangover it’s kind of hard to resist. Then halfway through brunch, something started to happen.
“Are you alright?” said Laura.
I tried to say yes, but my mouth felt puffy, and so did my head. And my head also felt hot, and now I was sweating. I took another sip of mimosa and the room began to spin. Then I switched to water. That’s when we knew something was wrong.
About a litre of water and an hour later, the symptoms had dissipated enough that I tried driving back to the city. But partway down the lakeshore road, Laura asked me to stop in a town so she could buy Tylenol, a thermometer and another litre of water. I felt like I was burning up, but had no fever. My face in the rearview mirror was bright red. And by the time we got back to the city there were welts on my arms.
So, here I am: brought down and bitten by the hair of the dog that bit me.
I didn’t drink the rest of the day, cooled down and felt a bit better, but the next evening we went to a dinner party and after just one beer it happened again. I soldiered through, with a couple glasses of wine and a hot red face. Then it happened again the day after that. That’s when I stopped drinking altogether and phoned the doctor.
THROUGHOUT HISTORY PEOPLE have done a lot of weird things to animals in the hopes of curing a hangover. The epic drinkers of Outer Mongolia pickled the eyeballs of sheep, horse wranglers in the wild west made tea out of rabbit shit, and my Welsh ancestors roasted the lungs of a pig — all very literally. But of course the most common remedy has always been figurative: to pluck a hair of the dog that bit you.
Even that catchy metaphor goes back to at least 400 BC when the Greek playwright Antiphanes wrote these words (or at least their equivalent in An- cient Greek) that appear to be riffing on something from even earlier:
Take the hair, it is well written,
Of the dog by which you’re bitten,
Work off one wine by his brother,
One labour with another.
Thanks to Antiphanes’ contemporary, Hippocrates, the forefather of both the Hippocratic oath and homeopathy, it was a concept popular to all forms of medical treatment: fight fire with fire, but do no harm. A tricky combination, but one that people have been attempting forever, even if by accident.
It is very possible that whole towns, cities and civilizations, from antiquity through the Middle Ages (where men, women and children drank ale like water) never got a chance to be hungover, just kept a slight buzz going throughout the day, and then into the next. As Barbara Holland, the author of The Joy of Drinking, puts it:
“Most of our ancestors greeted the dawn with a tankard of beer or a jolt of brandy, or both… the ‘hair of the dog that bit you’ restored the blood sugar and slowed the sickening drop of the blood-alcohol level. The modern hangover may be attributed partly to our stern morning sobriety and partly to guilt: we’re being punished, and we deserve it. Our ancestors in the mead hall felt pretty guiltless about their consumption.”
But guilt feelings aside, does a hair of the dog make practical sense? Sure it does. We’re just not supposed to cop to it. As Ms. Holland tactfully explains:
“Far down in their pompous treatises on the matter, the National Institutes of Health admit that ‘the observation that alcohol readministration alleviates the unpleasant- ness of both [alcohol withdrawal] and hangovers suggest that the two experiences share a common process.’… It’s just that the curative touch of that morning drink will inspire us to get rip-roaring drunk all over again and probably turn us into certified alcoholics.”
In 2009, Dutch researcher Dr. Joris Verster published a paper addressing exactly that. “The ‘Hair of the Dog’: A useful hangover remedy or a predictor of future problem drinkers?” was based on a survey of 454 Dutch undergrads. It revealed, among other things, those who used alcohol as a morning-after treatment consumed approximately two to three times as much alcohol as other students, and that those who used the hair of the dog more often (more than 25 per cent of the time they had a hangover) had “a significantly higher life-time alcohol dependence diagnosis.”
But of course, there’s an aspect of chicken-and-egginess to any hair-of-the-dog study. So, here I am: brought down and bitten by the hair of the dog that bit me, in the form of one little mimosa, of all stupid fruity things.
“THAT’S A CHAMPAGNE COCKTAIL, RIGHT?” says the doctor, studying the marks on my arms.
“So how many days ago was that?” “Three.”
“It’s my job to drink.” I say, but I’ve said this to him before. “I can’t be allergic to alcohol!”
The doc leans back. “I don’t think it’d be that exactly,” he says, and picks up a pen. “People don’t really get allergic to alcohol. Certain drinks, maybe, because of other things in them… but it sounds like you’re talking about all different sorts of drinks.”
“I am! So what do you think I should do?”
“What do you think you should do?”
I feel like I’ve tripped into a trap.
“Umm…. Can I maybe see an allergist?”
“I thought you didn’t want it to be an allergy? And what about in the meantime?” I know exactly what he means. It’ll be at least a month before I’m sitting in front of an allergy guy. It’s always at least a month.
“Well, I’ve been pretty much staying off the booze since I called you.”
“And that’s good. So why don’t you keep doing that — at least until we figure it out? Drink some water instead.”
“Sure,” I say, looking down at my feet. Walking out of this office, they’re all I can see of myself.
So, there we have it: apparently I’ve drunk so much my genes have mutated.
IN ALMOST EVERY CULTURE, in every era until this one, the most commonly prescribed medicine has been alcohol. All the way back to ancient Egypt, wine, mead and ale were poured out by doctors for symptoms ranging from asthma to epilepsy, and jaundice to javelin wounds. Hippocrates devised an elaborate system of wine therapy, prescribing different types for different ailments and incorporating it into the regimen for almost all chronic and acute illness.
Galen the Greek, who served in the court of Marcus Aurelius, brought Hippocrates’ methods to the Roman Empire. Among a hundred other things, he used it to treat the wounds of gladiators and, according to the wine connoisseurs of history, not one of them died from infection — from decapitation, disembowelment and being eaten by lions, sure; but not from infection.
Most medical practitioners of yore did warn that alcohol — no matter how beneficial — should be taken “in moderation.” What that meant then, or means today, should probably be a matter of more debate. But there were also those who argued the benefits of complete drunkenness and the healthfulness of a hangover. Arnold of Villanova, one of the great doc- tors and alchemists of the 14th century wrote the me- dieval masterwork on wine. In his Liber de Vinis he refers to his subject as “most friendly to human nature… suited to every age, every time, and every region.” And if the time in your region called for total drunkenness? “There is undoubtedly something to be said for inebriation, in as much as the results which usually follow do certainly purge the body of noxious humours.”
If, however, one’s hangovers tend to be accompanied by tinges of remorse, one might want to be careful about purging too many noxious humours.
IT IS MORE THAN a month later – a long, dry month — and I am sitting in another office, showing another doctor the marks on my arms.
On my right arm are the marks this allergist put on me with the simple pricks of a dozen laced needles: three rows of four, numbered and underlined with a black felt pen. Some are little red dots, while others are erupting volcanoes. These have been surrounded, but not contained, by a blue fine-tip circle of ink.
“Ragweed,” says the doctor. I assume he says this a lot. “Pollen. Dust mites. Dander….”
I am waiting for him to say oranges, or at least some kind of citrus. Or ice cubes, little plastic swords, Roofies — anything that would explain what’s been going on. But now he’s finished naming volcanoes, and… nothing.
“Did you even check for oranges?” He points to a small, colourless dot.
“So where does that leave us — assuming I haven’t been drinking ragweed and smog…?”
“Assuming that?” he says, face as straight as a dander-laden needle. “Well nowhere, really — at least as far as applicable allergies go. Sometimes the body just makes sudden changes. These could be rooted in the brain, the nervous system, affecting the production and balance of chemicals, other things…. The body and mind have all sorts of ways to protect you.”
I feel like that sentence should end, “whether you like it or not….” I’m still not sure what he’s getting at.
“Do you know what alcohol flush reaction is?” Sure I do. I think. I’m feeling very confused, and hotter, and itchier….
ACCORDING TO THE ALLERGIST and other doctors, but mostly the good people at Wikipedia:
“Alcohol Flush Reaction is a condition in which an individual develops flushes or blotches associated with erythema on the face, neck, shoulders, and, in some cases, the entire body after consuming alcoholic beverages. The reaction is the result of an accumulation of acetaldehyde, a metabolic byproduct of the catabolic metabolism of alcohol, and is caused by an acetaldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency….”
Since the mutation is a genetic issue, there is no cure for the flush reaction. Prevention would include not drinking alcohol.”
SO, THERE WE HAVE IT: apparently I’ve drunk so much my genes have mutated. I have become Drunkzilla.
For most of my drinking life I’ve acted both proud and sorry for my persistent resilience to booze. “The problem,” I’d say, sloshing a glass around in my hand, “is the problem is never big enough.”
It seems that if you want to be healthy, wealthy and wise, the worst thing you can do is drink nothing at all.
People get blackouts. They end up in hospital, or jail. They miss deadlines, get fired, crash a car — or maybe become really sick, brutally hungover, lose days, just can’t handle the drink anymore. But not me. I can handle anything. So where’s the reason to stop? You just keep on keeping on. That’s the problem. And I figured that’s how it would be until… what? Stomach ulcers? Gout? Sclerosis of the liver? But this? Who’s ever heard of this?
“So what do I do?”
“Well, it happens when you drink…,” says the doctor.
I am sick of doctors half-suggesting I know exactly what to do. I hear the roar of Drunkzilla. “Other than stop drinking?”
SURE: DRINKING LOTS of alcohol is usually bad for you — in both the long term and the short. And for many people, the dangers of drinking far outweigh the benefits. It can cause heart attacks as well as prevent them, provoke anxiety as well as soothe it. But that doesn’t make it bad. As they say: that which has the power to cure has the power to kill. We all now know that what is great for us one day will kill us the next, and vice versa.
We now also know that red wine will help your heart keep pumping while performing a dozen other miracles, too, just like Jesus and a thousand other healers said it would. The list of maladies for which regular wine consumption is recommended gets updated on a near daily basis. Today it includes cardiovascular disease, colds, cataracts, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s, dementia, diabetes, fatty liver, ischemic stroke, as well as some good old ones like indigestion, insomnia and aging. Beer, too, is now getting this old-world/new-world respect. According to recent studies, it is good for your kidneys, cholesterol levels, and bone density and is an excellent way to get all sorts of necessary vitamins.
In fact, it seems that if you want to be healthy, wealthy and wise, the worst thing you can do is drink nothing at all. To quote the author Mr. Iain Gately on recent drinking studies: “The three quarters-plus of American adults who drank… were found to be calmer, healthier, longer lived, richer and cleverer than their dry compatriots.”
And yet the medical community still tends to treat alcohol similar to asbestos. It’s as if there were a lingering guilt for all those eons in which doctors prescribed alcohol for everything — even, god forbid, hangovers — and a moral distaste to admitting that something could be taken both medicinally and enjoyably at the same time.
I RUN INTO KEN at the photocopier. We both teach writing at the university and I consider him a friend.
“Hey,” says Ken, collating. “It just occurred to me: If you ever finish your book then you’ll be that guy. Have you even realized that?”
I choose not to answer. Since my sort-of-diagnosis of a rare flushing syndrome, I’ve become quieter, and somewhat surly – at least until the first drink of the day, which is now quite late at night. And anyway, Ken never needs any prodding.
“Dudes in a bar — or wherever — they’ll say: ‘That guy there — he wrote the book on hangovers.’ And it’ll be literal. It’ll be literal, man! Have you even realized that?”
I can see the dudes in the bar: “That guy there – he wrote the book on hangovers.” And they’re pointing not to the swarthy, barrel-chested, Irish Viking Jew I always thought I was, but to the red-faced light-beer drinker who’s shaking in the corner. That guy there.
“You’re hardcore, man,” says Ken as he adjusts the stapler.
Something’s got to change.