Dear Matt: Why does “the hair of the dog” theory work for hangovers, and where did the expression come from? — Dog-bit Don, El Paso, TX
Howdy, stranger. Take that homespun theory to its logical conclusion and you may never have another hangover, but you will have a whole new career as everybody’s favorite gruff but colorful town drunk. Physicians speculate that a hangover is just a mini-attack of alcohol withdrawal. In a bad bit of design engineering, our bodies can’t metabolize alcohol as fast as we are determined to drink it. Our brains adjust to the gradually increasing amounts in our bloodstreams, and when we finally stagger home and hit the rack, the alcohol level starts to drop and we have what the docs call a “rebound” effect. The subsequent dry mouth, headache, nausea, spaciness, and bad mood may come from a flood of adrenaline shot into our systems to counteract the way-too-relaxed state we’ve achieved. (Medicos surmise that our individual body chemistries, as much as any other factor, will determine how we react to booze. A straight blood alcohol reading may not be a reliable indicator of how drunk a particular individual is or how big his hangover will be the next day.)
As for that hairy dog —obviously, if you’re in alcohol withdrawal, a shot of alcohol is exactly what your body craves. You’ll be drunk all over again, and you’ll have to keep drinking to avoid the screaming jeebies when you finally stop. The full original expression was “the hair of the dog that bit you,” and it comes from the very ancient belief that if you’re bitten by a rabid dog, you can fend off the inevitable illness by chasing down the miserable cur, yanking some hair from its tail, and applying the hair to your wound. Inflicting pain on the pooch may be the only satisfaction you get from that medieval advice.