Saturday, June 06, 2009


I've always suffered from headaches. From the time I was a wee lad to now, headaches have been an ever constant companion on the road of life. Over time, I have managed their appearances with aspirin, tylenol, advil, excedrin, excedrin migraine, dolex, dolex strong, and most recently, for the really horrid migraines that are so debilitating that I lose an entire day lying down in a dark place if un-medicated, Imigran (which is a totally amazing medicine).

As I have had these experiences, I have done some research over the years to get at the root of why I suffer from periodic (weekly) headaches or migraines (monthly). The short answer is, there is no answer. Oh, the doctors got some theories, few of them sufficiently comprehensive, but for the most part, we just don't have a really good explanation for why someone wakes up with a migraine or a headache.

Several factors have been compounding over the past several years. First, in my mid-to-late 20s, the headaches became more severe and the medicine less effective. This marked the appearance of occasional migraines as well as my transition to excedrin migraine. And second, in the last 2-3 years, I have developed what can only be described is a hyper-sensitivity to alcohol. This is very odd. In London, I drank like a fish, consuming my weight in beer on a bi-weekly schedule. I, of course, had hangovers, but they were all very manageable with late night kabobs and water.

Now, I am finding it very difficult to have even a few drinks without waking up to a really horrid hangover. Last night is a good case in point. As part of an ongoing self test, I drank two beers (Aguila in a can) over a course of four hours. The second beer accompanied half a pizza. That's 24 oz of beer in 4 hours with food. I never felt a buzz. This morning I woke with a mild headache and nausea. After eating a banana, a dolex, a glass of water, and a glass of orange juice, I'm feeling much better. But the question lingers: How could I possibly have a hangover from 24 oz of beer?

Hangover literature is not particularly helpful. Most of it includes "remedies" more suited for storybooks than reality. Even the scientific lit has very little to offer that one would term "solid". This is perhaps because alcohol is poison and human phisiology reacts to poisons differently and thus studies are complicated by poorly understood biological variation. It could also be that much of the science into the hangover is driven by pharmaceutical companies looking for a magic pill that prevents hangovers. I don't really know. But what is clear is that there is very little hard data on why hangovers persist in some people and not in others. I won't speak to that point as it is rather imprecise. Instead, I will speak to the one factor that stands out in the literature that might just be relevant.

When I was a lad of eight or nine, I had the misfortune of being placed into a 3rd grade class with a horrible witch of a teacher named Ms. Manners (no joke there - that was her real name). My father, as a naval officer, had been transferred to Newport, Rhode Island for a year, which meant I had to integrate into a new school, make new friends, etc. The social part wasn't problematic. I quickly made friends with another lad on my block as well as with a really obese kid in school (I've always loved fat people). But the classroom was different.

In Virginia Beach they taught cursive writing in the 3rd grade (don't get me started on how useless cursive is). In Rhode Island, they taught it in the 2nd grade. So when Ms. Manners discovered that I knew nothing of cursive (and thankfully, still no nothing), she immediately tagged me idiot and began to treat me like yesterday's garbage. This had a profound effect on me. Every day, I was walking into a hostile work environment and before long, I became ill. That entire school year, the only year I spent in Rhode Island, I was sick. It was the only year of my life that I was consistently sick and missed considerable time. And it wasn't because that fresh wintery air was germ filled either. It was simply a psychological reaction to a hostile environment. Fortunately, my mother is a teacher and she sorted me out with the cursive and then we moved on to Idaho and Japan, but that's a whole 'nuther story.

I relate this narrative because I believe that more than any other factor, my physical well being is quite closely related to my psychological well being. Anyone who reads this blog or knows me well knows that I'm not particularly happy in Colombia. In fact, I feel limited and out of options, so to speak and that has had a huge effect on me. While this stagnant period is coming to a close in less than 2 months, I do wonder if my inability to metabolize alcohol is related to my underlying dissatisfaction with my current state of being.

Over the past months, I have run basically ever self test possible. I have compared: domestic beer versus foreign beer, beer in a bottle vs in a can vs on tap, rum vs vodka vs wine, and every combination therein. The results have been universally consistent with only two exceptions. On my birthday, we had a part in the country where we played Tejo and gorged ourselves on steaks and all the goodies that go with that. I drank a sizeable amount of beer over the course of the day and don't remember any hangover the next morning. Similarly, 2 weeks ago we had the grandparents and some others over for lunch on a Sunday. I cooked a Lomo Al Trapo with mashed potato stuffed tomatoes on the side. While I didn't drink a great deal, I did drink beer and no hangover the next day. These two events support my psychological theory. Obviously, playing Tejo in the sun and eating gorgeous amounts of meat is a high point. At the same time, I love to cook and offer delicious food to guests.

In sum, my recent alcohol consumption has resulted in a typical hangover symptoms, no matter the type or amount of alcohol consumed. Further, these hangovers have had a duration and intensity greater than previous hangovers. Shortly, I shall find myself in different circumstances which will necessitate more tests. If the symptoms continue, then the problem must be considered physiological. If not, then the psychological explanation has salience.

Update: In addition to the comment below, my mother sent me this link. She is gluten intolerant although not full blown Celiac's apparently (I'm going to pretend like I know the difference). And to be fair, I can't remember the last time I drank vodka but the last time I drank rum it was a 12 hour session, which could explain the extended hangover (and there was some scotch on the tail end). At any rate, for the next 30 days, I'm on a gluten free diet which will hopefully provide some answers one way or another.



Blogger Shannon said...

Have you looked into the possibility that you are gluten intolerant? I say this because I have a good friend who had symptoms just as you do. Turns out she has that Celiac Disease.

~Shannon (of Eric & Shannon)

3:02 PM  

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