Researchers ‘cure’ hangover in largest study of its kind

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published May 14, 2020

Key Takeaways

Everyone has a homemade cure for a hangover: A pot of coffee? A hot shower? A greasy breakfast? An assortment of B vitamins? 5-hour Energy drink? “Hair of the dog”? These might seem like ready solutions when you’ve got the “brew flu.” But, unfortunately, none have been proven to actually work. 

Now, researchers in Germany (Prost!) have reported in BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health that a plant-based concoction of fruits, leaves, and roots may help to relieve symptoms of veisalgia (the highfalutin’ medical term for a hangover). 

Based on this description, you might think that the study participants were given a hollowed-out coconut filled with exotic fruits and herbs. In truth, they were given a supplement dissolved in sugar water. In any case, the mixture included specific plant extracts, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant compounds commonly believed to ease the physical and psychological symptoms associated with drinking alcohol. 

The plant extracts included Barbados cherry (also known as acerola), prickly pear, Ginkgo biloba, white willow, and ginger root. The vitamins and minerals included magnesium, potassium, sodium bicarbonate, zinc, riboflavin, thiamin, and folic acid. The antioxidant compounds were steviol glycosides and inulin. 

Vanquishing veisalgia?

In what they describe as “the first and probably world’s largest three-way, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled intervention trial on the nutritional efficacy of a food for special medical purposes (FSMP) in veisalgia,” the authors undertook this study by first getting a lot of people drunk.

Not kidding. The researchers gathered 214 healthy adults in a well-lit room and let them drink as much beer, wine, wine spritzer, or “radler” (a mix of beer and fizzy lemonade, popular in Germany) as they wanted over the course of 4 hours. 

Before the party—er, experiment—began, though, the investigators took blood and urine samples and measured blood pressure and body water content in each of the partygoers—er, participants. 

Also, before the 4-hour “alcohol intake phase,” the researchers distributed 3 different premixed solutions to 3 groups of randomized participants. The first group received a mixture containing the plant extracts, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant compounds. The second group was given a similar mixture of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants but without plant extracts. The third group got only sugar water (placebo).

The researchers recorded how many and what kind of alcoholic drinks each participant had, and how many times each one used the restroom. 

After the 4-hour drink-a-thon was up, the researchers gave each of the groups the same mixtures they had beforehand. Also, they took more blood and urine samples, and blood pressure and body water content measurements. Then, they sent the participants home to sober up. 

The morning after

Twelve hours later, the participants came back and the investigators took the same samples and measurements. Participants filled out a questionnaire in which they rated how intensely they felt 47 possible hangover symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, nausea, dry mouth, restlessness, light sensitivity, dizziness, trembling, sweating, “fuzziness,” etc. 

When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that participants reported wide variations in the intensity of their symptoms. But, only those given the full supplement of plant extracts, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants reported less severe symptoms. On average, they had 34% lower headache intensity, 42% less nausea, 27% less indifference, and 41% reduced restlessness compared with the placebo group. They had no changes or reductions in any other hangover symptom, though.

Akin to the placebo group, the group of participants who were given the supplement minus the plant extracts had no significant reductions in any symptoms. This indicates that the plant extracts were largely responsible for the reduced hangover symptoms, the researchers concluded.

So, what’s in these plant extracts that give them the power to reduce hangover symptoms? 

In previously published experimental studies, other researchers have found that the polyphenol and flavonoid compounds in each of the five plant extracts have been associated with reducing the physiological impact of alcohol. But it’s not clear how.

“The underlying mechanisms remain to be unraveled and surely need further investigation,” our German authors determined.

Dehydration and electrolytes

The researchers found a couple of other surprising results. 

First, they saw no association between alcohol consumption and body water content, which indicates that drinking alcohol doesn’t necessarily lead to dehydration.

“Objectively, an increased intake of fluids simply causes an increased excretion of fluids,” the investigators wrote. “Thus, the hypothesis that alcohol-induced dehydration is a cause for the expression of hangover symptoms such as headache cannot be supported.”

Second, the group that received the mixture containing vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes, but no plant extracts, had no improvement in their hangover symptoms, which indicates that drinkers don’t suffer a loss of these nutrients when they imbibe. 

“Thus, hemostasis of electrolytes and minerals might not be significantly affected by alcohol consumption,” the researchers wrote. 

“[I]t seems to be clear that hangover symptoms are predominantly caused by alcohol and its metabolites,” they concluded.

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