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Tes talks to…Dr Richard Stephens

With the arrival of Christmas party season, a psychologist specialising in hangover research tells Christina Quaine whether there is any hope for teachers the morning after the night before

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With the arrival of Christmas party season, a psychologist specialising in hangover research tells Christina Quaine whether there is any hope for teachers the morning after the night before

Thumping head? Check. Mouth as dry as the Sahara? Check. Desperate to crawl back under the duvet for another few hours? Yes, that too. Richard Stephens has assessed your symptoms and it seems that you are suffering from a hangover.

Let’s be honest, you’ll probably endure one, two, maybe more, over the festive season – and you’ll be expected to crawl into school and deliver lessons as if you had been tucked up in bed by 7pm. Is there a way of making that any less of a Herculean task, or even avoiding the hangover altogether?

Stephens is the man to ask. He deals with (other people’s) hangovers daily, having researched everything from how they affect cognition to potential cures.

It’s a specialist area for the senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University. In 2010, he co-founded the Alcohol Hangover Research Group, comprising research teams from universities around the world who share findings and ideas with the aim of raising the profile of their research field.

“Gaining a clearer, scientific understanding of hangover is long overdue,” says Stephens. “There is a massive industry around alcohol research, but until recently hangover has been neglected. Yet it’s a big part of alcohol consumption. To put it bluntly, one of the biggest problems with alcohol use disorder is people missing work and their studies because of being hungover.”

 

Stephens’ methodologies involve asking participants about hangovers past and present, either through online questionnaires, or they’re brought into the laboratory the morning after drinking. Another approach is to give people a controlled amount of alcohol in the lab.

“The good thing about this methodology is you have control over alcohol consumption, but you’re only allowed to give people so much in a laboratory – quite rightly – because of health and safety concerns. It could be argued that the former method is a more naturalistic experience, anyway. It’s hard to replicate alcohol effects in a lab, as there seems to be a lot of social variables,” he says.

Unlike your average member of the public, who measures a hangover on a scale of “not too bad, surprisingly” to “I’m absolutely hanging and will never drink again”, Stephens uses an acute hangover scale to measure the extent of a participant’s suffering.

“Much like pain research, hangover can only be measured subjectively. You can’t take a blood test. The scale covers eight symptoms: thirst, tiredness, headache, dizziness or faintness, nausea, stomachache, racing heart and loss of appetite. The top three that get reported most are thirst, tiredness and headache,” he says.

Ah yes, those familiar foes.

What’s the impact of these symptoms on your performance the next day in the classroom?

Well, you might find that you have trouble pulling formulae out of your memory for your maths lesson, or that in your English class you can’t put your finger on the name of Victor Frankenstein’s brother*.

That’s because, according to Stephens, a hangover can impair your long-term memory.

“In 2014, we published a review paper on how hangover affects general cognition,” he says. “Looking across all the research, we found that working memory, your mental working space where you handle information in order to think, isn’t affected by hangover but long-term memory is. Long-term memory is when you’ve stopped thinking about something and then you bring it back to mind – this could be something you’ve stored 10 seconds ago, or decades ago.”

Sobering experiences

What’s more, Stephens has found that our reaction times are slower when we’re the worse for wear – which, he says, could have implications for those getting behind the wheel the next morning once they’ve sobered up, or those trying to react to the hubbub of the school corridors.

“We’ve looked at the effects of hangover on the ability to react as quickly as possible to a stimulus on a computer screen,” he explains. “People who had been drinking the night before not only had significantly slower reaction times than those who weren’t hungover, but they also had more variable reaction times, demonstrating more caution before making a response. So it may be that you realise your information processing isn’t quite spot on, so you’re more cautious before making a decision.

“It’s only lab research, but it’s interesting because it could have implications for driving a car safely. And remember, a hangover kicks in once your blood alcohol level has returned to zero, so legally you’re allowed to drive.”

The general perception is that hangover symptoms get worse with age: older teachers laying claim to two-day hangovers and congratulating younger colleagues on their ability to easily shake off a vodka cloud from the night before are common.

This an area that Stephens is perhaps the most passionate about – and one that he’d love to test in a lab setting.

“I would give an aged group and a young adult group equivalent amounts of alcohol per kilogram bodyweight – around three pints of beer is all an ethics committee would allow – get them into the lab the next morning and assess their symptoms,” he says. “Personally, I don’t think there would be any difference.”

There is some research in this area already. In 2014, Stephens was part of a team whose sample of more than 50,000 people filled out a survey including questions on hangover.

“We found that hangovers are a young person’s problem, that the older you get, the less likely you are to get a hangover. So in that sense, hangovers don’t get worse with age, they’re less frequent,” he says.

But anyone over 30 will simply not accept their pain is not worse. Why might that be?

Stephens believes that we tend to look back at the hangovers of our youth with rose-tinted glasses.

“As you get older, perhaps you don’t drink so much, then one night you drink a load of alcohol, feel awful the next day and think, ‘I don’t remember hangovers being anything like this bad.’

“However, in your teens and twenties you could probably spend the day in bed sleeping it off, whereas in your thirties, forties and beyond, you have to get the kids up for school and get yourself to work. We know that the memory of pain recedes with time – studies into the pain of childbirth, for example, show that for women the memory of the pain fades. Likewise, you’re comparing the hangovers of your forties with your impaired recall of what a hangover was like in your twenties.

“But ultimately, the data isn’t out there yet and until we have it, that’s my opinion.”

Old or young, though, is there any way of actually avoiding a hangover? Is it possible to let your hair down and feel fresh once you’ve sobered up?

“From a science perspective, the only solid, evidence-based advice I can give is to not drink,” he says.

Oh.

All about the congeners

But Stephens does concede there are steps you can take to lessen morning-after misery.

Choose your drink wisely, for a start. He points to evidence that clear drinks, such as vodka, may leave you feeling clearer-headed than darker-hued beverages – and it’s all about the congeners.

“These are complex organic molecules found in alcoholic drinks that are by-products of fermentation. There’s some evidence that the darker the drink, the more congeners it contains,” he explains. “In a US study, people were given a controlled amount of either vodka or bourbon, relative to body weight. Those who drank bourbon, containing more congeners, had more severe hangover symptoms the next day.”

Another tip: once you’re lurching around the dancefloor to Taylor Swift, drink in hand, try to pace yourself.

“How fast you drink determines what will happen to your blood alcohol level. A paper published last year by members of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group came up with a golden percentage of 0.11 per cent blood alcohol level – if you can stay below that, there’s a chance you won’t experience such a bad hangover. You can drink quite a lot of alcohol and stay below 0.11 per cent over the course of an evening by having soft drinks or water in between alcoholic drinks,” he says.

If you want to avoid taking a nurse with you to your school’s Christmas party to regularly administer blood tests, basic calculators do exist online, but have extensive disclaimers. Or you could just drink plenty of water.

But if the damage is done and you’ve woken up feeling like death?

“Rehydrating with water is important – and perhaps have a cup of coffee,” says Stephens, confirming the age-old morning after routine as scientifically sound.

“Headache symptoms are probably to do with an overactive immune system and inflammation, so any headache remedies that target inflammatory response, like ibuprofen, will ease symptoms,” he adds.

There is no bulletproof cure for or protection against hangovers, then. But what of a 2008 literature review from Boston University, which found that 23 per cent of people are hangover resistant?

“Well, it could be that they are genuinely hangover resistant: their metabolism doesn’t respond to the after-effects of alcohol in the same way,” says Stephens. “Or it could be that they pace themselves and drink in a more sensible way.”

Or, of course, they could be liars. After all, as sure as there will be hungover teachers this Christmas, there is equal surety that there will be teachers doing a very good job of hiding it.

*It’s William. You’re welcome. Now get yourself a coffee and bacon roll.


Christina Quaine is a freelance journalist

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