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Friday, Dec. 25, 2009
Japan's favorite hangover cures
Tis the season to be jolly. And when you've finished being jolly, tis the season to wake up with veisalgia, more popularly known as a hangover.
The punishment begins when alcohol reaches your brain and tells your pituitary glands to stop producing a hormone known as vasopressin. It's vasopressin that regulates your body's water retention, and without it your kidneys begin to drain your body. With all those trips to the bathroom, you'll also be flushing away essential salts and electrolytes, leading to fatigue and nausea.
Alcohol also inhibits the production of glucose, the energy source for your brain. When you finish drinking, glucose production goes into overdrive. For most of us, that's right when we plan to sleep. Your hyperexcited brain won't fully shut down, you endure a restless night and wake up foggy.
Your brain will also be smaller the next morning, not just because you snuffed out some cells, but also because, to compensate for the missing water, your body has been stealing fluids from your cranium. That pounding in your head? That's your shriveled gray matter tugging at its membranes.
If this hasn't completely ruined your festive plans, here are Japan's favorite hangover remedies.
Water works, but sports drinks work better. Pocari Sweat and its imitators rehydrate you and replenish your supply of potassium and magnesium, two essential electrolytes that you've been excreting. The liquid will help with your headache; the nutrients will speed up your body's water cycle, flushing the toxins and easing your nausea.
"Honey," she said, "you're catching a cold; you should take a garlic injection."
"Darling," I said, "I don't think I will."
The next day, a needle was forcing a cocktail of glucose and vitamins C and B1 into my arm. Within hours, the symptoms of my ailment had vanished, but my mouth was radiating a ferocious garlic-like fetor. The name of the shot, it transpired, comes not from an ingredient but from a malodorous side effect of the vitamin B1.
The doctor mentioned in passing that it also worked wonders on a hangover, since his clinic is one of many that supplements the shot with a dose of glycyrrhizin, a compound found in licorice that helps prevent liver damage and may soothe upset stomachs. The doc recommended taking the shot before socializing. I recommend taking it well before socializing.
Asian people are particularly efficient at converting ethanol into acetaldehyde, which is one of the chemical causes of a hangover. Persimmons contain catalase, which helps metabolize the acetaldehyde. They also contain potassium to help flush your toxins and vitamin C to freshen your breath.
The Chinese have been using watermelons medicinally for millenniums, but it took a Japanese scientist named Mitsunori Wada to figure out why. In 1930 he isolated citrulline, an antioxidizing amino acid found in watermelons that appears to boost blood circulation, detox the liver, ease muscle fatigue and do a host of other things that someone with a hangover might appreciate.
In 1994, a company named San Koa Suikato from Japan's watermelon- growing Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu began marketing citrulline extract as a dietary supplement. Says company spokesman Ryoji Ueda: "We began hearing from customers that our product was helping their hangovers, so we took it to Tokyo Ikashika University (Tokyo Medical and Dental University) for tests." The university found that the supplement offered "resistance to acute alcohol intoxication."
The product was reborn as Suika No Chikara (Watermelon Power), a 4-gram square of compressed fermented watermelon with garish packaging and marketing that almost-but-not-quite claims it can prevent or cure a hangover. It's available throughout Kyushu and in selected Family Mart stores nationwide, and yes, it really works.
It takes a special person to wake up with a hangover and want to eat mollusks, but clams are low calorie, easy to absorb, and contain iron, calcium, glycogen and a perfect balance of eight amino acids required to rebuild your damaged cells. According to hangover researcher Shoji Harada (see box), "We usually eat the clams in miso soup, which is also rich in amino acids and minerals that are effectual for the symptoms of a hangover, such as (rumbling) bowels."
If you believe all the claims made of turmeric, this rhizome can help you lose weight, ward off cancer, disinfect wounds, kill pain, slow multiple sclerosis, ease depression, combat arthritis, prevent melanoma, treat Alzheimer's, guard against heart attacks, heal leprosy and remove unwanted body hair. It has also gained a reputation as a hangover remedy in Japan, aiding digestion, soothing upset stomachs and fortifying the liver, which accounts for the abundance of turmeric pills and potions on the market. In almost a decade as a drinks writer, I've had the opportunity to test a variety of products, and the most effective seems to be Shugo Densetsu ("Heavy Drinker's Legend"), a pair of pills sold in izakayas throughout Okinawa. One pill contains three types of turmeric, the other uses herb and fruit extracts to regulate blood-sugar levels, since overdrinking is usually accompanied by overeating.
It's Japan's oldest, best-known and least likely hangover cure. Take a Japanese apricot and pickle it for months, or years, until it's sour enough to turn your mouth inside out. Paradoxically, the organic acids raise the pH level of your stomach, easing nausea and stomach pains. Meanwhile, the fruit delivers much-needed potassium and sodium. Eat the umeboshi before drinking and the sourness stimulates mucus in the stomach that will slow the absorption of the alcohol.
Don't drink too much
"There are remedies for specific symptoms of a hangover," says Shoji Harada. "Aspirin is useful for a headache and sports drinks are effective for listlessness and thirst. But I think the best method to stop a hangover is moderate drinking."