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No tricks to avoid hangover, experts say

CHICAGO -- Colleen Gorman has a holiday ritual that doesn't involve buying presents or counting down to midnight: She goes online to look for hangover remedies she hasn't tried.

She already has scratched off those big "prevention" pills, vitamins and chugging sports drinks, along with more quirky folk remedies, including peanut butter sandwiches.

"My fiance says I should probably just drink less," said Gorman, 28, a Chicago lawyer.

Experts say that's good advice for everyone.

"The only way to prevent a hangover is to not get drunk," said Boston University researcher Jonathan Howland.

That might be too radical a remedy for many revelers, but it's the only proven one. Still, there are strategies that can soften the blow.

Topping the list? Don't drink on an empty stomach, said Sam Zakhari, director of the metabolism and health effects division of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Food helps absorb alcohol and delay its toxic effects on the body.

Drinking plenty of water before, during and after also helps because alcohol can dehydrate the body.

Kim Khan teaches at the American Professional Bartending School in Villa Park, Ill., and devotes a class to serving responsibly. That includes encouraging bar patrons to drink water. Khan, who also tends bar, says alternating drinks with glasses of water helps. It's a method she uses "because I've been doing this way too long."

Some people think choosing clear alcohols is safer, because darker-colored drinks contain more compounds called congeners. That is based on an unproven theory that those compounds cause the body to make toxins that upset the stomach and cause other hangover symptoms, said Howland, a researcher in the emergency medicine department.

But no one really knows what causes hangovers, which makes preventing them a challenge, Howland said.

He's hoping to find a clue in his research into why some people don't get hangovers. About 1 in 4 drinkers never feel yucky after overindulging. In Howland's lab, that includes study subjects given normally "intoxicating" doses -- about six beers for men and five for women.

That may seem enviable, but Howland said those in the 25 percent also may be more likely than the rest of us to become alcoholics.

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