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Feature Christmas 2008: Seasonal Fayre

Festive medical myths

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 18 December 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2769

Hangover cures

I was rather disappointed with the section "You can cure a
hangover . ." in “Seasonal Medical Myths . .” in the BMJ
Christmas issue, vol. 337, p.1443. Known physiology can
surely provide some basis for treatment, and there have
been articles in the BMJ suggesting that massive blind
crossed-over trials are not always essential, particularly
where that is the case.

In the note quoted water is
mentioned once, in the first sentence, coupled with
Vegemite (whatever that is). It has been known at least
since the days of Shakespeare that excessive consumption of
alcohol causes loss of body water [reference surely not
necessary: it is to the Porter in Macbeth; I haven't got
an edition of Shakespeare that gives line numbers]. From
1942 onwards I was working in the late Professor R. A.
McCance's Department of Experimental Medicine for the Royal
Navy on the problems of survival at sea. These of course
include lack of drinkable water. Prof. McCance was a great
practiser and teacher of 'do-it-on-yourself' physiology.

In the course of the work I noticed that the symptoms of
experimental dehydration corresponded closely with those of
a hangover. A few years later I found myself in uniform as
the doctor on a small flat-bottomed minesweeper (HMS
Truelove: as it happened I was engaged at the time) on
Fisheries Protection duty but also to test the new Naval
life-raft (the ancestor of all current life-rafts) in Artic
waters in early spring. The evening before we were to sail
at 0600 into the North Sea from Rosyth, the wardroom
officers (about six in number) came to me and demanded
preventative treatment for any hangovers. With difficulty,
I managed to persuade them that only drinking water would
work. "Right, Doc, we'll take you at your word", they
responded -- I thought a little threateningly. At about
midnight they returned to the wardroom, carrying trays
laden with pint glasses of water, which they proceeded to
down. I heard no more from them -- which I regard as
positive evidence -- and the ship sailed on time into a
rough sea with all hands in good shape.

I do in all
seriousness recommend an adequate dose of water as an
effective (and cost-effective) treatment. (I am not in any
way disparaging proper comparative trials where possible
and appropriate. When we compared motion sickness
preventative drugs in the early 1950s, the design of the
double-blind crossed-over trials, which I was responsible
for, was quoted as an early example of good design.)

G. R. Hervey, Emeritus Professor, University of Leeds, and
sometime Chairman, Survival at Sea Sub-Committee, Royal
Naval Personnel Committee.

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

08 January 2009
G Romaine Hervey
Retired Prof. of Physiology, Univ. Leeds
Garth House, Beryl Lane, WELLS, Somerset BA5 2XQ