One of the oldest, most common miseries known to man goes by a variety of names. What the medical community recognizes as veisalgia (from the Greek root algos, for “pain and grief”), Germans refer to as katzenjammer (“wailing cats”); when Scottish poet Robert Burns described feeling “ramfeezled and forswunk” in the late 18th century, he was invoking the same malady that modern-day French-speakers call gueule de bois ("wooden mouth").
Here in the U.S., of course, we just call it a hangover.
Virtually every consenting adult has suffered at least a touch of this distress at one time or another. And while the scientific explanations for the condition vary, the symptoms are almost universal: headache, upset stomach, and thirstiness all signal the wrath of grapes, hops, or spirits. In response, almost every culture has generated homegrown cures—which can be loosely grouped into four categories.
These remedies employ heat—both internal and external—to sweat out toxins and distract from hangover discomfort. The Russian banya (sauna), kept at a sweltering, steamy 194°F, is a firefighter; but so is a spicy Romanian tripe soup that draws attention to a burning tongue rather than a pounding head.
Many cultures believe in kick-starting a frizzled battery with some kind of pickle. Besides the bracing shock of vinegary flavor, the saltiness of snacks like pickled herring (in northern Europe) and umeboshi (in Japan) are meant to restore electrolytes and encourage the drinking of more water. (Poles and Russians have even been known to drink brining liquid straight. If this sounds questionable, just ask the Philadelphia Eagles about their winning “pickle juice game” in 2000; players drank pickle brine before kickoff and said it helped them withstand 109°F heat.)
Lining the belly with a heavy meal, as a sort of sandbag against crashing waves of indigestion, is a morning-after ritual in many countries. As well as calming the stomach, chewing through a meaty spread like a full English breakfast might trigger a restorative nap.
The Hair of the Dog
Though most researchers claim that turning back to what bit you actually stalls recovery, there’s a wealth of mixological evidence to the contrary—from the classic brunch companion, a spicy Bloody Mary, to the more bracing Corpse Reviver.
What all of these remedies share is a certain home-brewed sense of comfort—as well as hard-won street cred. And such emotional benefits may have quite a bit to do with the cures’ reported effectiveness. In 2005, the British Medical Journal published a study on eight hangover treatments, including fructose and a beta-blocker; none alleviated symptoms. Could it be that our hungover selves are tricked by a placebo effect?
When we’re at the mercy of the wailing cats, do we even care?