The Man Who Spent a Decade Traveling the World in Search of a Hangover Cure
There is a single remedy that he now swears by.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, a Canadian writer and journalist, claims to have discovered a hangover cure. But you probably don't want to try it.
That doesn't make much sense, I know. It'd be like Jonas Edward Salk saying, “I’ve developed a polio vaccine! But you should probably skip it.” Shouldn’t a cure for hangovers be a cause for celebration? If it really works, we'll be able to drink all the booze we want without any of the consequences. But that, Bishop-Stall notes, might be exactly the problem.
He spent a decade traveling the world in search of remedies for the dreaded karmic payback for too much imbibing, using himself and his battered immune system as a guinea pig. As he recounts in his new book, Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure, there's no shortage of insane, disgusting or just downright confounding things that human beings will do to make their heads stop throbbing.
In his research, he filled his socks with hemlock, got buried in hay, squeezed lime onto his armpit, and consumed "two eels, suffocated in wine” per a Roman Empire hangover remedy. What he found is that most hangover cures resulted in Verschlimmbessern. It's a German word, Bishop-Stall writes, “that combines Verbessern (to make something better) with Verschlimmern (to make something worse) so that the new meaning is ‘to make something worse by trying to make it better’.”
He did eventually stumble upon a cure, or what he suspects is a cure. The recipe includes milk thistle (for your liver), N-acetylcysteine (for your immune system), vitamins B1, B6 and B12 (for your metabolism) and frankincense (an anti-inflammatory). Consume that concoction at night, before you stumble to bed, and Bishop-Stall promises that the next morning you'll “still be tired, even exhausted, but otherwise things tend to be right as rain.”
But again, finding a hangover cure may be the worst thing that ever happened to you, and quite possibly to human civilization as we know it. I called Bishop-Stall to get some answers.
For some reason I thought it’d be a good idea to get drunk last night and try one of your hangover cures. But I think I picked the wrong one.
Which one did you try?
I’m drinking eggnog with some charcoal in it.
[Moan.] Ugh. I’m so sorry.
I think I actually feel worse.
Yeah, that one wasn’t high on my list of approved remedies.
You tried it with a shot of olive oil, but I skipped that one. I’m pretty sure it’d make me vomit.
Good call. That was a big mistake on my part. I thought that mixing the chimney sweep method with the Mediterranean method would work better somehow. It didn’t go well. That was probably my biggest hangover cure faux pas, let's say.
Did you start writing this book because you thought the ultimate hangover cure existed? Or because you wanted confirmation that human beings are idiots?
I didn't seriously think I could find a hangover cure. I wasn't even that perturbed by the idea of not finding one. I assumed that the last chapter of my book would be some sort of poetic, philosophical summation of the hopelessness of it all. So I was as surprised as anybody when I actually found some things that did eliminate the main symptoms of a hangover.
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I've spent most of my life thinking that curing a hangover comes down to hydration. If you drink enough water before going to bed, you have a better chance of waking up not feeling entirely awful. Is that wrong?
Not entirely. But dehydration is one of the symptoms rather than the underlying causes of a hangover. It's really our own bodies fighting the toxicity that causes all the problems. It's our immune systems going insane. The key is getting in there before the whole domino effect begins.
Once you're passed out, it's too late to stave off a hangover?
Yes, absolutely. You have to stop the mechanism before it starts. If you catch it early enough, it's not yet creating a build up of acetaldehyde, which is the toxic byproduct of breaking down alcohol in your system. So there's already less toxicity and your body is responding with less aggression towards it. I think that's what's happening, but I'm not a scientist, I'm not a doctor, and even the doctors and scientists who try to deal with this stuff all have conflicting views on how a hangover works.
I tried one of the cures mentioned in your book over Thanksgiving. My brother has a sauna, right on the beach next to Lake Michigan, and after a weekend of way too much booze, we all got into it and then jumped into the lake.
Did it work?
I definitely felt better, but my balls were the size of snow peas. Is there anything to it? Did I cure my hangover or just trick myself into thinking I did?
There's a lot of science that backs it up. Especially the freezing cold part of it. I think a lot of that has to do with your fight or flight system kicking in whenever your body jumps below a certain temperature. Primordially, we know that when we get too cold, we're in danger.
There were a few seconds there when I was pretty sure I was going to die.
It’s that burst of adrenaline when your body reaches the freezing cold, especially going from hot to cold, and adrenaline can go a long way to nullify some hangover symptoms.
What about sweating it out in a sauna?
I think there's something to be said for it, but there's also a huge danger that you're just amplifying the dehydration. You've only got so much liquid left in your body and you're sweating the rest of it out.
So just stick with jumping in cold lakes?
Well, I wouldn't go so far as to recommend this to readers, because there's always a chance with freezing cold water that people's hearts are going to stop and then we'll both get sued. But in theory, completely hypothetically, I think there might be something to it.
Why hasn’t there been better medical research on hangovers?
If you want a really simple answer, I think throughout history doctors have been really busy. [Laughs.] They're busy people.
Do they just not care about hangovers? I mean, it’s not cancer, but it’s caused a lot of suffering over the years.
I think it's so far down on their list because the solution is right in front of your eyes. Don't drink, or at least don't drink to excess and you won't get a hangover. But that doesn't fully explain it. Hangovers are an extremely complicated puzzle. They're similar to the common cold. Finding solutions to the common hangover and the common cold both come down to having a better understanding of our immune systems. But doctors are more interested in solving the common cold, because it doesn't have that sort of moral stupidity that comes with it.
A hangover is essentially a warning, right? It's your body saying, “Please don't do that, that's a bad idea.”
It’s a very obvious warning signal but for some reason we don't tend to heed it. We all know it's coming, we know the warnings are there, and we keep drinking anyway. Everything is a dichotomy when it comes to hangovers.
You reach an interesting point in the book where you start to wonder if maybe finding a hangover cure is a bad idea. Maybe we need hangovers. Without them, we’d all just be drunk every day.
I think it's possible, or at least that’s what would happen to those of us with a heart and soul. And here’s an even scarier proposition. Those who weren’t drunk all the time would rule the world. As we know, most dictators have been teetotalers.
Is that true?
It is, yeah. Teetotalling totalitarians. It's a very strange phenomenon.
Hitler was definitely not on the sauce. Idi Amin, Mussolini, all non-drinkers. I never thought about that before.
Not enough people pay attention to that fact. I think Genghis Khan was really the last despot who was also a drunkard.
I was going to say Josef Stalin, but I think I read somewhere that he used to drink water instead of vodka so he could trick his enemies into getting snookered.
You could go back through the real evils of history, and whatever you want to say about the current situation in the United States.
Oh, there’s plenty to say about it.
We're talking about not just people who weren't drinkers, but hard line teetotalers. It's very strange.
Trump brags that he’s never even tasted alcohol.
That’s right, yeah. So that's my other fear. It's not just that a hangover cure could cause society to falls to ruins because we'd all be drunk, but that the only people who wouldn't be drunk would be psychopaths.
And we’d let them take over because we'd be too soused to care.
Exactly, exactly. So there’s that. Humanity’s relationship with alcohol is really profound and complicated. When you look at the whole picture, in a “what goes up must come down” kind of way, it’s actually an amazing window into the human condition.