No two hangovers are alike. Perhaps that helps explain why finding a cure for a hangover is so difficult. A hangover usually rears its ugly head several hours after excess drinking, with symptoms of fatigue, thirst, drowsiness, headache, dry mouth, nausea, apathy, reduced alertness, sensitivity to noise and light, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
The medical term for hangover is veisalgia. But knowing the terminology won’t make a hangover any easier to tolerate. So, what can cure a hangover? A cold shower? A pot of strong coffee? A handful of B vitamins? Despite the popularity of these common “cures,” there’s no strong evidence to show that any of them help to reduce hangovers (and the coffee won’t help you sleep it off, either).
But here are a few potential hangover remedies that have at least some scientific research to back them up.
N-acetylcysteine, an antioxidant available as an over-the-counter supplement, appears to decrease the symptoms of hangover by reducing the nasty byproducts of alcohol (ethanol).
When ethanol hits the liver, it’s metabolized into the toxin acetaldehyde—one of the main culprits of hangovers as well as liver damage. So, a good hangover remedy is one that would decrease the amount of time that the body is exposed to acetaldehyde.
N-acetylcysteine boosts the production of glutathione, which breaks down acetaldehyde.
In studies of zebrafish (which are models for human liver disorders), N-acetylcysteine reduced oxidative stress and intoxicated behaviors. In the only randomized clinical trial in humans, however, researchers found no difference in hangover symptoms between N-acetylcysteine and placebo. One potential reason for this discrepancy may be due to the different times of study drug administration between trials. Specifically, in the human trial, N-acetylcysteine was given after alcohol consumption, while in the zebrafish study—and in recommended usage—N-acetylcysteine was dosed before alcohol ingestion.
Red ginseng significantly reduces plasma alcohol levels after drinking alcohol, according to researchers in Korea, where red ginseng has been used as a traditional medicine for thousands of years. In a randomized crossover study, these researchers also found that red ginseng—taken as a tea—reduced expiratory alcohol concentrations in the short term (30 minutes after drinking), and it relieved a number of hangover symptoms in the long term. The investigators attribute red ginseng’s antioxidant effects to improving alcohol metabolism and relieving hangover symptoms.
You’d have to be really drunk to eat a prickly pear—you’d get a mouthful of cactus needles. However, an extract of the prickly pear plant appears to reduce some hangover symptoms.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial, researchers found that a proprietary prickly pear extract had a moderate effect on reducing hangover symptoms of nausea, loss of appetite, and dry mouth compared with placebo. The researchers concluded that the prickly pear extract reduced inflammatory mediators, which lessened the severity of hangovers. Notably, participants who received the prickly pear extract had 40% lower C-reactive protein levels compared with those on placebo.
What goes well with heavy drinking? Apparently, tomatoes fortified with alanine. In a randomized crossover trial that included 20 men, researchers in Japan found that participants who drank to excess and then had alanine-fortified tomatoes and a high micronutrient meal, had lower alcohol concentrations in their breath, and woke up the next morning with fewer hangover symptoms.
So…where can you get alanine-fortified tomatoes? For this study, the investigators combined alanine, an amino acid, with tomato paste. They hypothesized that alanine creates a synergy with precipitates—such as the water-insoluble dietary fibers of tomatoes—to reduce the absorption of alcohol and curb blood-alcohol concentration in the body.
How to exacerbate a hangover
Many traditional hangover “cures” can actually make a morning after worse off than before. Do yourself a favor and avoid these reputed hangover “antidotes”:
- “Hair of the dog.” This phrase stems from a traditional remedy for treating the bite of a rabid dog by putting hair of the dog in the bite wound. Applied to alcohol, it means having a little bit of the drink you had the night before to rid you of a hangover. There is truth to this old tale, insomuch as consuming more alcohol can slow the conversion of ethanol into its toxic metabolites. But this really just delays the hangover a little longer—it won’t cure it, and it may even make it worse.
- Red Bull. Mixing Red Bull with alcohol, or slamming down a Red Bull after drinking alcohol, is commonly thought to reverse the mind-numbing effects of alcohol through the energy drink’s “energizing” properties. But Red Bull may significantly increase the concentration of acetaldehyde and other markers of liver injury. “Studies have confirmed that combining energy drinks (such as Red Bull) with alcohol could mask the signs of alcohol intoxication, resulting in greater levels of alcohol intake, dehydration, more severe and prolonged hangovers, and alcohol poisoning,” according to the authors of a study on alcohol metabolism.
As with many things, the best advice is often the hardest to swallow: “The most effective way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol induced hangover is to practice abstinence or moderation,” wrote the authors of a systematic review of studies on hangover remedies.