It’s that time of year when we subject ourselves to an excess of food and drink and then painfully remember that our bodies still treat alcohol in exactly the same way as that day long ago when we first discovered how to make it.
There are countless apocryphal remedies for treating a hangover, all of which forget the obvious - don’t drink too much in the first place! Assuming this advice is about to be forgotten, then the next thing to do is to eat before drinking. This slows the passage of alcohol into the bloodstream and explains why a couple of drinks on an empty stomach can have you reeling. It will do nothing to ultimately affect the levels of alcohol in your bloodstream so the only thing that will sober you up - including the classic myth of black coffee - is time.
Although any alcohol will make you feel dreadful given enough of it, the usual suspects for really bad hangovers are brandy, cheap red wine and rum. These are low in absolute alcohol but high in products of fermentation - called congeners - which are broken down into chemicals that trigger hangover symptoms such as a headache. Other well-known problems include thirst, nausea and vomiting, sweating , shaking and high anxiety levels. Thirst is caused by alcohol being a diuretic and so if you drink a couple of glasses of red wine you will lose about twice that amount of water from the body over an hour or two. The irritant properties of alcohol on the stomach play a part here too, but the whole picture needs to be considered as well as just the alcohol. Throw smoking, a lack of sleep, too much rich food and unexpected psychological events into the mix and you have a recipe for a serious hangover.
Just as you lose water from your body when hung over, you also lose potassium and glucose (which is why you can feel so hungry despite not wanting to eat anything!). One of the easiest ways to rebalance this is to eat bananas, as these are rich in both potassium and magnesium, which help to regulate blood sugar levels. They are also rich in Vitamin C, which tends to be wiped out by having too much to drink. You can buy rehydration tablets that will help to restore your fluid levels and mineral balance here.
So, if you don’t want a hangover then go light on the drinks! This option is something that we control ourselves but what about what we eat over the festive season? It may come as a surprise to learn that in the UK we can eat up to 6,000 calories each on Christmas day with the dinner itself having 1,000 calories in it. (In case you’re wondering, it would take 10 hours of running to burn off those 6,000 calories!)
What most people certainly don’t realise however, amidst the annual calorie blow-out, is that there are around 30 deaths a year from food poisoning, and that one in five of us will risk food poisoning by eating old turkey leftovers that have been around longer than the recommended limit of 2 days in the fridge. So, what can you do to prevent your risk of being hit by this over the festive season?
Well, most food poisoning is caused by eating or drinking food which is contaminated. This contamination may be caused by bacteria, viruses, chemicals or toxins but most food poisoning is caused by bacteria such as Salmonella or Campylobacter. The foods most commonly involved with food poisoning are meat and poultry, shellfish, rice and dairy products, and most food poisoning is related to food prepared in the home. There is usually no way of telling whether food is contaminated as it usually looks, tastes and smells normal.
The symptoms of food poisoning vary depending on which type of food poisoning you have, but will usually include some or all of the following;
Bacterial food poisoning can take a while before it makes you ill because the bacteria have to increase in numbers inside the body before causing illness. This can take up to three days, so the contaminated food may not be the last food you ate, although it is natural to think that it is the last meal which made you ill. However, this is often not the case.
The most common ways for food poisoning to occur are by eating or drinking contaminated food, like undercooked meat, poultry and eggs, or touching contaminated food, like undercooked meat, poultry and eggs and then eating or preparing some other food without washing and drying your hands. You can also get it from someone who is ill with food poisoning who hasn’t washed and dried their hands properly after using the toilet, or by handling pets and animals without washing and drying hands properly afterwards, or allowing pets on to kitchen work-surfaces.
From cereals, rice, soil and dust, this causes nausea, cramps, and diarrhoea from 1 to 6 hours after eating contaminated food, and usually lasts for 24 hours.
Found in meat, poultry, eggs, cream and custard products, as well as on the skin of healthy humans, this causes acute vomiting, nausea, cramps and diarrhoea. It typically occurs from 30 minutes to 8 hours after consuming contaminated food and the illness can last for up to one week.
This is a toxic organism found in the intestine of humans, animals, birds and insects, as well as being found in soil and dust and on fruit and vegetables. It causes nausea, cramps, diarrhoea, headache and fever, 6 to 72 hours after consuming contaminated food. The illness can last for up to one week.
Found in soil, raw fish, vegetables, canned fish and corned beef, this is an uncommon but potentially very serious cause of food poisoning. This bacteria can cause difficulties in breathing and swallowing and paralysis within 12-36 hours.
From soft cheeses, dips, incorrectly prepared pates, unwashed fruit and vegetables. It causes flu-like symptoms and can also cause miscarriage, and can occur from 1-70 days (10 weeks) after ingestion.
Most cases of E. coli food poisoning occur after eating undercooked beef (especially mince, burgers and meatballs) or drinking unpasteurised milk. Found in human and animal faeces, sewage, and water it is a common cause of food poisoning. Most strains are harmless but some strains can cause serious illness. The incubation period of E.coli is 1-10 days.
To avoid food poisoning, cook all meat properly, especially chicken and minced meats and avoid using raw or undercooked eggs (including as an ingredient in another food such as mayonnaise). Avoid eating or drinking unpasteurised milk and cheeses and take care not to let blood from thawing meat drip onto other foods in your fridge.
Wash and dry your hands often, and always between handling raw and cooked foods and after using the toilet. Keep your kitchen clean, especially your dishcloths and work surfaces and keep your fridge working between 10C and 50C (get a fridge thermometer if necessary). Keep raw and cooked food separate, including using separate chopping boards for raw and cooked foods
If you are unfortunate enough to develop vomiting and/or diarrhoea then the most important action is good personal hygiene to avoid spreading the infection to other people. Avoid contact with as many people as possible until you have been clear of symptoms for 48 hours, and drink plenty of water, even though you may not feel like it. Rehydration tablets such as O.R.S can be very helpful here as they help replace salt, glucose and other important minerals lost through dehydration - vomiting and diarrhoea cause your body to lose water, and dehydration can be serious over a period of several days. Most adults and children over five years should stay away from work or school until they are feeling better. People working with food must stay off work until they have been symptom free for two days. You must tell your employer about your illness.
People working with vulnerable groups such as the young, elderly or those in poor health, should stay off work until they have been symptom free for two days, also young children should stay away from playgroups, childminders or nursery school until they have been symptom free for two days.
From all of us at Healthwords, have a very happy hangover and ‘tummy bug’ - free Christmas!
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