09/14/2011 09:56 EDT | Updated 11/14/2011 05:12 EST

The Beginner's Guide to Hangovers

There's a theme of youthful indiscretion and testing one's limits, because what's charming at 20 is worrisome at 30, and alienating at 40.


There's a social convention among people in their 20s and 30s that requires us, upon getting together and having a drink, to occasionally touch on the story of The Most Epic Hangover Ever. We've all got a sordid tale or two: the time he ordered pizza delivered to his bedside, or the time she was still drunk for a noon exam, or the time I accidentally threw up in front of 150 eighth-graders (confidential to the class of 2006: sorry, that was super gross). There's a theme of youthful indiscretion and testing one's limits, because what's charming at 20 is worrisome at 30, and alienating at 40. Usually, when my friends and I tell these anecdotes, there's an air of the campfire tale. These hangovers have become the stuff of our legends.

What is a hangover? Alcohol , so appealing in the moment, has a number of adverse effects. It's a diuretic, meaning that it draws water out of your body. This has at least two consequences: one, you become thirsty, so you drink -- usually more of the beer you're already holding; and two, it makes you pee, further depleting your reserves. The next morning, your body is dehydrated, which can lead to headaches, nausea, tiredness, and horrible poops. Frequent heavy drinkers can experience some severe withdrawal symptoms, like shaking. Hangovers are never, ever fun.

The best way to avoid a hangover is to never drink. Unfortunately, youth culture in Canada expects its members to hoist a beer from time to time. The words "I don't drink" can create a moment where everyone wonders if you were an alcoholic or are just religious. Go ahead and say those words anyway: trust me, folks who look down on teetotalers aren't the drinking buddies who will save you from wretched hangovers. Whatever your reasons are for not imbibing, they're valid. On the other hand, just because you're not buying a round doesn't mean you get to cozy up to the bar for free. Make sure you purchase a pop or juice while your boozy friends drink alcohol, and tip well.

Everyone I know has a magic hangover cure. Drink a pint of sugar water before bed! Eat a slice of whole wheat bread! Deli meats! That's the ticket! Sadly, there is no sure cure for a hangover. Although time, water, and a nutritious meal can help, when you're dealing with vicious nausea and shaking hands, whipping up bacon and eggs seems as insurmountable as swimming the Bering Straight. As I've gotten older, my hangovers have increased in severity, and I've become militant about my four-drink maximum; any more, and I'm a barfing mess the next day. "Binge drinking," due to discrepancies in international standards, is somewhat hazily defined. The Ontario government defines "youth heavy drinking" (ages 12 to 19) as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion. In my experience, binge drinking often seems to happen in a group setting: think bars, house parties, beer pong tournaments, drinking games. To no-one's great surprise, the group most likely to binge drink is young men between 15 and 24.

Dudes! Young dudes! I understand that large swathes of this country still close at 8 p.m., and there's never much to do on a Friday night for 17-year-old guys regardless of your area code. I get it. Beer can make you feel good, popular, strong, smart, and like the girls from your class might one day talk to you. Trust me. This is not true. You are still ugly and weird. This is totally fine, however, because every single person your age is also ugly and weird, even the attractive, normal ones. Alcohol does nothing to bridge that gap. You don't need to drink fourteen beers and then wrestle on a trampoline in order to become a man.

When I was younger, I might have said there was some spiritual merit to a hangover -- penance for a lousy decision, or a spirit quest through suffering. As I've gotten older, however -- broadcasting live from the ripe old age of 27! -- I've come to see that hangovers are an avoidable part of the human experience. Drinking too much is a conscious choice, and for some reason (it might be the tricks of the booze), I always believed that somehow, I would be able to avoid the next morning's unpleasantness. For young and new drinkers especially, the gregarious and social elements of drinking appear to far outweigh the solitary suffering of sobering up. The desire to compare notes on horrible hangovers, even years later, speaks to how lonely we feel in those moments.