Michael Y. Park
Let’s just lay all our cards on the table: You’ve had food hangovers, and we’ve had food hangovers.
Sure, you may call it by another name, but you know the symptoms intimately: bloating, lethargy, maybe a little nausea or stomach upset, with a general feeling of blah thrown in for good measure. And you know the cause: not drinking too much but eating too much—overindulging in food that’s too fatty, salty, spicy, sugary, caffeinated, or simply voluminous for your body to cope with the following morning.
For us, it’s an occupational hazard. For you, it’s probably a reminder you had a great night out. But for all of us, it’s something we want to be rid of as quickly as possible.
Though we at BA have our drawers full of Pepto, prescription medicines, and home remedies, we thought we’d consult professionals to see what they say the best cures for food hangovers are.
The Skinny on Fat
You may feel like you’re going to explode after that once-a-year gorging session at the steakhouse, but we have good news for you.
“It’s not going to kill you,” says David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University.
What’s likely going on is that your body simply wasn’t prepared to handle such a large amount of fatty food. It’s going to take a little while for your digestive tract to get up to speed and build up the necessary enzymes to process it, causing you that leaden, bloated feeling you’re suffering through, possibly along with indigestion or heartburn.
“If you’re a vegetarian and ate a steak, it’s going to sit there a while,” Levitsky says. “If you haven’t had a high-fat diet for a while, it’s going to stick around because the necessary enzyme supply simply isn’t in the G.I. tract. It’s just going to take a while before the digestion is complete and moves it into the colon.”
Though you’re ultimately going to have to wait it out, Jennifer Stack, assistant professor of nutrition at the Culinary Institute of America, suggests some things might speed the process along a little.
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“People can try chewing gum—it stimulates saliva, which stimulates the stomach acid and helps move the stomach contents to the small intestine—though it’ll take a while,” she says. “Or they might try an herbal tea that’s caffeine-free, or simply sip some water. It also helps to take a walk. It doesn’t burn off calories but, compared to lying or sitting down, might prompt the digestive tract to keep moving. And since you’re upright, it limits the chance of acid reflux.”
Stack advises against chewing or eating anything mint-based after a large meal, however, as she subscribes to the much-debated theory that mint contributes to acid reflux by lowering pressure on the esophageal sphincter. Levitsky, on the other hand, is part of the side of the debate that doesn’t believe mint has any such effect.
More Than a Grain of Salt
If your poison came in the form of an extra-salty meal, junk food, or processed foods, then your natural instinct is generally your best bet.
“This is where water is really helpful,” Stack says. “We need plenty of water to excrete the excess sodium. And a glass of water or fluid can help dilute the stomach acid, which is a preventative way to avoid acid reflux or acid burn.”
Stay away from alcohol, which will dehydrate you, and be aware that the natural pairing of alcoholic beverages with salty junk food is going to aggravate your salty-food hangover.
But unless you suffer from hypertension or are otherwise salt-sensitive, you’re going to be OK after even an extraordinarily salty dinner, as salt is so rapidly absorbed into the gastrointestinal tract.
“There will be some people with a hypertensive attack—the blood pressure goes up, and it’s potentially dangerous if there’s a weak artery that could burst or cause an aneurysm—but it should pretty much ameliorate after a couple hours,” Levitsky says.
The day after your overindulgence in salt, try eating high-fiber foods, like vegetables, which will absorb water and get your digestive engines running smoothly again.
“The fiber from those foods is going to help form a nice, solid stool with bulk that’s easier for the digestive tract to push along and out,” Stack says.
Turn Down the Heat
Remember that time you went to that new ethnic restaurant that your more adventurous friends swore by? You sat down to the table, ordered an exotic-sounding chicken dish while surrounded by imported conversation pieces that smelled of teak or sandalwood, and proceeded to unintentionally entertain your friends to no end as you bit into your meal and immediately blew steam out of your ears.
And then came the next 24 hours, as you struggled with that feeling.
Y’know, that feeling of giving birth to a baby lava monster while a certain Johnny Cash song echoed in your pounding skull.
Sadly, once you’ve reached the lava-baby stage, there’s not much you can do.
What’s happening is that the spices that made your tongue dance as you chewed and swallowed are still active as they slide down your gullet and, uh, make a dramatic exit.
“These spices are really active compounds, stimulating the neurons all along the G.I. tract,” Levitsky says. “It can be a feeling of malaise or not being yourself. Most people don’t feel it, but some individuals are particularly sensitive.”
The best thing you can do is to address your spicy-food overdose as or right after you eat, Stack says.
First off, don’t lie down or sit—those positions could encourage reflux. And you’ll find that most cultures with a tradition of spicy foods serve their hottest dishes alongside a garnish or side dish that’s intended to cool down the heat—sliced cucumbers or yogurt, for example. Don’t be a hero—take advantage of what you’re offered.
And, as nutritionist and New York University adjunct professor Lisa Young notes, spicy dishes often include a ton of hidden salt, so you may additionally feel bloated or get flushed or sweaty. Follow the advice for salty food: Once again, water is your friend, followed by bland, high-fiber foods the next day.
Like salt, sugar is quickly absorbed and not something you’re likely to feel the effects of the next day, even if you consumed enough cookies, candy, and sweets to have tunneled out of the vaults of the Domino Sugar refinery. Instead, your hangover is more immediate—you probably feel a rush of energy soon after you eat, followed by a so-called sugar crash shortly afterward.
But there’s scientific debate about what’s really happening to your body during a sugar rush, and what to do about it.
On one side is Stack, whose observations follow probably every parent’s anecdotal evidence of kids bouncing off the walls after the cake at a birthday party.
“What can happen is your blood-glucose level is going to rise, which gives you your sugar high, your pancreas responds by pumping out insulin, which lowers your blood-glucose level, and then your body produces too much insulin, and we go from sugar rush to sugar low,” Stack says. “What you really need is a little protein and a little bit of fat with that sugar to slow down digestion with it. Then make sure your next meal or snack is more balanced, with a slower-reacting carb, like a whole-grain starch.”
On the other side of the argument, however, is Levitsky. He cites plentiful research that has shown there’s no objective link between blood-glucose levels and hyperactivity. The sugar rush and subsequent sugar crash, he says, are all in our minds.
“It’s not the effect of the sugars, but rather the taste of the sugar,” he says. “We associate sweet tastes with being crazy, like going to a birthday party, which is where they have sweets. You really can’t feel blood-sugar changes and have it make a difference in being energetic or not. The taste of sugar has conditioned us to feel as if we have energy. In actuality, it doesn’t, metabolically.”
Now, to the five-year-old in us, the solution is obvious: Have cake and ice cream for every meal. What better way to break the psychological link between sugary treats and special occasions, right? But Levitksy suggests that time, not a constant flow of sugary snacks, is your ally.
“Kids eventually learn to distinguish these feelings from the actions,” he says. “It doesn’t do any harm to these kids, though it does make the parents feel guilty.”
And what about adults who still swear candy and cake make them feel as hyperactive as kids? Maybe this this is a simply a case of a childish thing that you shouldn’t regret putting away.
You’re probably going to get a caffeine hangover from indulging in a beverage, not a food, but the effects can be just as unpleasant, if not worse.
“Caffeine is a real drug,” Levitsky says. “It can make you jittery, it causes tremors and hand shakes, and you can get so used to the caffeine that when you don’t have it, it can cause a reaction—many people get headaches if they regularly use it and stop.”
And if you’re already on the verge of a food hangover of another sort, that after-dinner coffee probably will only make matters harder, especially since caffeine also lowers esophageal-sphincter pressure, Stack says.
Luckily, in most cases, waiting out the effects of too much caffeine—or going without, if you’re dependent—will solve your problems. For the overindulgent, the jitteriness will subside in a couple hours. And for the caffeine addict going cold turkey, the withdrawal symptoms will usually go away within a week or so. In either case, be sure to (surprise!) drink plenty of water and keep well-hydrated.
An Immovable Feast
But what if you’re suffering from an overall intake of too many calories, rather than too much fat or salt? What if you simply gorged yourself, leaving yourself deep in the distended malaise of the self-hating glutton?
“Time is the greatest healer we have,” Levistky says. “The G.I. tract will take care of everything. It will absorb all those nutrients, which will be deposited on your body, but you can just eat less for the next week or two. No irreconcilable harm done, even by gorging.”
But there are a couple things to be aware of. For one thing, diet sodas aren’t going to help you after a huge meal.
“Often, if people overdose on calories, they feel like they can now have a diet soda, because it has no calories,” Young says. “They might think it’ll make them feel better, but it won’t. It will make them feel gassy and not help them very much.”
More seriously, if you find yourself popping antacids like an elephant sucks down peanuts, then you should see a doctor to explore potential underlying issues.
“If you’re using them several times a week, it could be a sign that something is wrong,” Levitsky says. “They could be masking the effects of a serious G.I. problem.”
And—sorry, ancient Romans—it’s never a good idea to intentionally vomit just because you ate too much at dinner.
“It’s much wiser to just let that food work its way through the system than to try to purge yourself,” Levitsky says. “That could be dangerous, as you purge yourself of critical ions that can affect the heart muscle.”
But we’ve saved the best piece of advice for last. And we’re confident experts everywhere would agree with us that there’s only one surefire method of ending the pain of a food hangover: Don’t overindulge in the first place.