All the best scientists have intense, almost obsessive curiosity. They want to know how the world works, and they'll do whatever it takes to get some answers. This curiosity sometimes leads them to experiment on the closest test subject available: themselves. Jonas Salk first tried the polio vaccine on himself and his family. Famed chemist and LSD creator Albert Hofmann took the first dose on April 19, 1943 and rode his bike home through a magical mystery tour (to this day, acid heads celebrate "Bicycle Day" on April 19 in his honor). August Bier pioneered spinal anesthesia by injecting cocaine into assistant's spine and later his own.
And now I join their honored company. In an attempt to literally put to bed the theory that sex can cure your hangover, last night, in the name of science, I got mightily shit-faced. Today, I tried to cure my hangover with sex. Have my Nobel sent to the offices of Broadly.
This was my plan: On Sunday and Monday night, I would get drunk enough to give me a mild to moderate hangover. I didn't want my hangover so severe that I couldn't move, because then how could I do sex? On Monday morning, I would do nothing. On Tuesday, I would have sex with my husband. I would assess my hangovers for the remainder of the day. In order to produce the best hangover, I did all the things you shouldn't: I drank whiskey because dark liquors contain more cogeners, or extra chemicals that make a hangover worse, and I smoked and had sugary drinks, which are also believed to exacerbate hangovers.
Many people believe that dehydration is what causes hangovers, but while hangovers share some symptoms (dry mouth, headache, inability to concentrate), electrolyte levels in hungover people do not match those of purely dehydrated people.
"Alcohol has its effects on urination during intoxication via increasing the production of vasopressin, a hormone that controls fluid balance," says Damaris J. Rohsenow, associate director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University. "Then, during hangover, vasopressin levels are down."
Rohsenow explained the various alleged causes of a hangover to me via email. Another culprit that's been ruled out recently is glucose. People used to think your blood sugar crashed during a hangover; however, according to Rohsenow, "there was no correlation between blood glucose level and degree of hangover severity in several studies, so there is no support for blood sugar being associated with degree of hangover."
The most likely culprit, according to the Alcohol Hangover Research Group (AHRG), is an immune response. Researchers found that pro-inflammatory cytokines build up in the body after drinking. Cytokines are small proteins that signal cells in your body to do all manner of stuff. The cytokines that concentrate during drinking cause tissue to inflame like an allergic reaction. Pro-inflammatory cytokines may be responsible for nausea, headache, general soreness, and even the memory loss associated with drinking in excess.
The question then becomes: Does sex have an anti-inflammatory effect? And, if so, is it enough to kill a hangover?
When we orgasm, we are flooded with hormones. One of which is oxytocin, the so-called "bonding chemical." Oxytocin helps us fell empathy, bond with our partners, and heal our wounds. It's also anti-inflammatory. A 2010 study found that couples who succeeded at a bonding exercise had elevated oxytocin levels, and those couples also healed better from wounds. The study suggests that the oxytocin the couples got from working together blocked cytokine production.
So I had my hypothesis: Having sex would release enough oxytocin to block cytokine production, curing my hangover. The only thing left to do was to test my theory.
While at the bar getting hammered for science, I asked people if they had ever cured a hangover with sex. "I guess I've had some success with that," said my Sunday night bartender. "But the hangovers weren't that severe. If the hangover is bad enough, that's the last thing I want to do."
"I think it's a distraction, not a cure," said one drinker. Her friend agreed with my bartender that severe hangovers and sex do not mix. "I sometimes feel better when I get up and move," he said, "but the thing where you're thrusting or being thrust into is the wrong kind of movement. Like a blowjob, sure, but sex? Not so much."
If my hangover was a celebrity, it would have been Chris Evans—thirst-inducing but inoffensive.
Monday morning I got up a little before 11, drank all the water, and watched several episodes of The Vampire Diaries. I was hungover, but not terribly so. If my hangover was a celebrity, it would have been Chris Evans—thirst-inducing but inoffensive. I'd rate my quality of life on Monday at a 7.5.
Tuesday morning I woke up at 8-ish to have sex with my husband before he went to work. We did the deed, I came, and went back to sleep. I woke again around noon, wishing I could go back to sleep. I stumbled around the kitchen like a zombie. Little sounds would startle me, and my skin felt flush. If today's hangover were a celebrity, it would be Ryan Lochte—it won't go away and it's exhausting. Today I'm living life at a 4, just below bearable.
I definitely feel worse today, which my husband knew was going to happen. "I'm on board," he said in a text when I explained the scheme to him, "but I doubt its effectiveness. I feel like having to wake up that early could negate a lot of the benefit." Although I wound up sleeping around the same total number of hours Sunday and Monday night, my sleep schedule was interrupted Tuesday morning for the sex.
"My own research found that objective measures of sleep disturbance (e.g., low sleep efficiency, more time awake, number of awakenings) correlated with higher hangover symptoms," says Rohsenow. The AHRG points out in their 2008 paper that studies of hangovers usually do not mimic the sleep deprivation that usually occurs when someone is out drinking all night: "[S]ome of the symptoms that are experienced the day after excessive drinking are significantly related to sleep duration and quality and not to the amount of alcohol that was consumed."
So, people may mistake the sleep hangover for the booze hangover, especially if they're feeling particularly sluggish.
Fucking the pain away might work if you have to be up early anyway, but sleeping off a hangover is still the more reliable cure. It's going to take many more brave researchers like me to develop a better one.