The Search for the Elusive Hangover Cure

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Alan Haburchak

For as long as people have been drinking alcohol, they’ve been trying to figure out a way to avoid its woozy, nauseated, sensory-amplified aftermath. But is there really any foolproof strategy for preventing a hangover besides, say, not drinking?

Scientifically speaking, no. There is no such thing as a hangover cure. In a review of 15 clinical trials of hangover-intervention methods, a team of researchers publishing in the British Medical Journal found that not a single one worked. They concluded:

“No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover. The most effective way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol induced hangover is to practice abstinence or moderation.”

Abstinence? That’s no fun. So people continue to drink and to try to nurse their morning-after headaches. Common remedies include greasy breakfasts, over-the-counter painkillers, a jog in the park and folk treatments like tripe soup (Mexico) or raw eggs and hot sauce (U.S.). People say the best cure for a hangover is more alcohol — but put down that Bloody Mary. Your withdrawal symptoms will merely be postponed, not prevented.

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Now an entrepreneur and neuroscience enthusiast in New York, Dave Shor, believes he’s finally achieved the holy grail: a drink called Mercy that supposedly prevents hangovers by replenishing a variety of key compounds in the body, including certain amino acids that help break down a toxic byproduct of alcohol processing.

Of course, part of the difficulty in curing hangover is that it has so many causes. One is dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, which is why you display classic dehydration symptoms when you’re hungover: headache, nausea and fatigue. When alcohol enters the bloodstream and the brain (alcohol can cross the blood-brain barrier), it — among many other things — blocks the release of vasopressin, a hormone that promotes water absorption in the body. So much of the body’s water goes directly to the bladder and gets flushed out instead.

The next morning, that translates to a dry mouth and a throbbing headache (as the body attempts to filch hydration from the brain). When the body loses water, it is also depleted in potassium and sodium, which can cause muscle soreness, weakness and fatigue.

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Shor suggests that drinking one can of Mercy (which contains potassium and glucose) per every four or five alcoholic drinks at the end of the night can help you avoid that crummy feeling the day after. But, then again, simply drinking water — or coconut water or sports drinks, if you want the extra electrolytes — before bed will also help mitigate morning dehydration.

Another major cause of hangover is a highly toxic byproduct of alcohol-processing called acetaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. The liver, which processes most of the alcohol you consume, has a way to neutralize the toxin in the form of glutathione, a compound that contains the amino acid L-cysteine. (Still with me?) L-cysteine breaks down acetaldehyde into water and carbon dioxide, which are then eliminated from the body through urine.

When we drink in moderation, the glutathione in the liver keeps up — and we feel fine the next day. But when we overdo it, the liver simply doesn’t have enough glutathione to handle the acetaldehyde load. Many hangover symptoms, such as fatigue, a sore stomach, general malaise and the inability to sleep through the night are the result of an abundance of acetaldehyde: our bodies are working hard to make more glutathione and that simultaneously keeps us up, by stimulating the brain and exhausts us.

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Shor says Mercy was developed to boost levels of glutathione. “What we’re doing is using sulfur-containing amino acids, specifically L-cysteine,” says Shor, “and adding the synergist B1 and C and thiamine to activate the L-cysteine, and L-cartotine to boost glutathione levels.”

Say what? We asked nutrition expert Marion Nestle if the science made sense. She says, “Sounds like a great placebo. I’m not aware that [dietary] glutathione or vitamins help with alcohol toxicity.”

There’s also no clinical data to suggest that a concoction like Mercy would reduce hangover. The idea sounds logical, but it’s not a given that simply ingesting various components of glutathione will actually boost levels of the compound in the liver.

So we’re back to square one. The best way to cure a hangover? “As with most such things, moderation in alcohol intake is an excellent idea and it’s better to prevent than treat,” says Nestle.