Who could be better than a chemist when seeking advice on the best way to recover from a night of too much drinking? Tucked away in a corner of the American Chemical Society's meeting in New Orleans, members were taking in a presentation on the chemistry and physiology of the hangover.

Dr. Alyson Mitchell had several tips for anyone planning to spend a night out on Bourbon Street – or eagerly hoping to recover from one. Part of the news was an endorsement of the effectiveness of Yak-a-mein soup, sometimes called Old Sober, a local hangover remedy.

The soup is a salty beef broth containing beef, noodles, scallions and hard-boiled egg. Those are the basic ingredients, though individual recipes and the spelling of the soup (Yakmein, Yaka-mein and Yak-a-Men) can vary. Old Sober is sold from street carts and in restaurants in New Orleans and is highly recommended for anyone who's had too much to drink the night before.

Darker liquors like brandy, bourbon and dark rum have more congeners than clear liquors like vodka or gin. They also cause stronger hangovers.

There are two stories about how Old Sober became established in The Big Easy. One holds that soldiers stationed in Korea in the 1950s learned to appreciate the curative ability of the local noodle soup the morning after and brought the recipe back home with them. The second says that Yak-a-mein emerged from New Orleans' Chinatown, a community that thrived in the 19th century but no longer exists.

Chemically speaking, the salt, broth and egg in Yak-a-mein all play a part in recovering from a hangover.

Drinking alcohol sets in motion an assault on the body with three major factors contributing to a hangover. First, alcohol itself causes dehydration and irritates the stomach. It also causes blood vessels to dilate, which can be the start of a pounding headache. Second, as the body tries to rid itself of alcohol, it produces acetaldehyde, which is even more toxic and reactive then the alcohol it came from. And third is the presence of congeners, toxic non-alcoholic organic compounds that are found in booze, either produced by yeast during fermentation or arising during the aging process of alcoholic beverages.

Some congeners give beverages like brandy their distinctive flavor, while others are just contaminants that cause drinkers grief the morning after. Darker liquors like brandy, bourbon and dark rum have more congeners than clear liquors like vodka or gin. They also cause stronger hangovers. Switching to lighter colored intoxicants won't eliminate hangovers, but it will tone them down a bit.

One study that compared vodka drinking to bourbon drinking found that while vodka did give less severe hangovers than bourbon, vodka drinkers were just as impaired as bourbon drinkers the morning after. They felt better, but weren't any more alert.

It's been suggested that the best way to treat a hangover is to think deeply about the pointlessness of excessive drinking. People in search of more immediate relief might start by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes with Yak-a-mein or similar foods to help start the climb back to normalcy.

The only sure way to prevent a hangover is to avoid heavy drinking. For those who won't, Dr. Mitchell offers several tips:

  • Eat eggs, which contain cysteine, which helps to remove acetaldehyde from the body.
  • Drink broth because it contains salts that can help replace sodium, potassium and other salts lost in the urine due to the diuretic effect of alcohol. Sports drinks also may help.
  • Take vitamin B1, which may help prevent the buildup of glutarate, a substance linked to the headache part of a hangover.
  • Remember that the body can metabolize, or eliminate, about one-half ounce of pure alcohol per hour. So consume no more than one 12-ounce beer, five ounces of wine, or one ounce of distilled spirits each hour.
  • Don't drink coffee, which is a diuretic and can worsen the dehydration caused by alcohol itself. Eat fatty foods prior to drinking. They help slow down absorption of alcohol.
  • Avoid dark liquors such as brandy, tequila, whiskey and red wine, which have the highest concentrations of congeners. By contrast, clear liquors, such as vodka and gin, have fewer congeners.

Of course you might want to ask yourself whether any habit that encourages you to eat more fatty and salty food is really worth it.

Alyson E. Mitchell, PhD, is a professor and food chemist at the University of California at Davis. She made her presentation at the 245th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society.