Why It’s So Dang Hard to Find an Effective Remedy for HangoversWill hangover-free mornings ever be a thing?
kieferpix / iStock / Getty Images Plus
You’ve likely heard at least four dozen different “hangover cures” from friends and family (not to mention Google). Everyone who sometimes experiences hangovers searches for their perfect and reliable remedy to dull the effects of binge drinking, and many people swear by their preferred remedy.
Then again, when others try these allegedly foolproof hangover remedies, they don’t enjoy the same results. Bagels, instant ramen, Big Macs, and cold showers are all common tactics. Some people espouse drinking a specific flavor of Gatorade, but others feel no change from the neon-colored beverage. Some insist on eating a greasy meal, while others are too nauseated to even *think* of eating the morning after.
Even some scientists have jumped in on the search to nail down the most effective and reliable hangover remedy—but to no avail. Most end with the same conclusion: There’s no evidence that an effective hangover remedy exists, and the only way to “treat” the symptoms of a hangover is to not get one in the first place. (Thanks, Captain Obvious.)
This news is unlikely to please those still on the hunt for their go-to hangover remedy—or even for those who’ve already found a seemingly reliable remedy. Why can’t science back them up?
“Hangovers are not one symptom in particular; it means different things for different people” says Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, MD, chief medical officer at the American Addiction Centers. “For some, it could mean GI distress, nausea, and a headache, and for others, it could cause light sensitivity or muscle pain.”
“The reason why it is so difficult for researchers to find a cure for hangovers is because no one is quite sure of its pathology,” says Dr. Weinstein. To understand those different components, you need to know what a hangover actually is.
A hangover is the uncomfortable symptoms—including dizziness, headache, nausea, sensitivity to light, and irritability—that one experiences following too much alcohol, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
“There is still some debate on exactly what a hangover is and what causes it,” says Erica Mouch, RDN, CD, registered dietitian and food therapist at Erica Mouch Nutrition. “There are potentially four key pieces that contribute to a hangover. No single piece has enough research backing it as the sole reason for all hangover symptoms.”
Here are four potential factors that researchers believe cause hangovers:
- Dehydration: Alcohol is a diuretic and can result in a loss of hydration. Some of the symptoms of dehydration (like irritability and general fatigue) are similar to hangover symptoms.
- Nutrient imbalance: “Our body is busy converting enzymes related to processing alcohol,” says Mouch. “This can make it more challenging to regulate electrolyte and blood sugar levels.”
- A buildup of acetaldehyde: This toxin is a byproduct of metabolizing alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Acetaldehyde is thought to be up to thirty times more toxic than alcohol itself. Buildup of this toxin has been shown to cause nausea and vomiting in studies,” says Mouch.
- Cytokine production: Your body produces a protein called cytokines to fight infections or other “invaders” (like allergens). “Cytokines act as messengers for the central nervous system and evoke an inflammatory immune system response,” says Dr. Weinstein. This response from cytokines creates "very similar symptoms as a hangover, including physical and cognitive impairments.”
These four separate theories pose a challenge for finding an effective hangover remedy: The cure would need to address all four of the problems—and be able to do it consistently for all body sizes or types of alcohol, according to Mouch.
The Ethical Dilemma of Researching Hangover Cures
It’s important to remember that alcohol may be legal, but it is still a drug. It can be safe in moderate amounts, but in excess, it can have toxic effects on the brain and body that last beyond the hangover. Should researchers knowingly put study participants at risk?
“In order to test or find hangover cures, the volume of alcohol being provided must elevate the Blood Alcohol Concentration [BAC] to 0.11 to 0.12 percent at least,” says Mouch. It would be unsafe to give this quantity of alcohol to a light or casual drinker, so researchers would need to seek out heavy drinkers who can tolerate this amount of booze.
This creates another ethical dilemma. “All study participants would need to be screened for alcohol use disorders,” says Mouch. “Providing a large amount of alcohol to this population would also be unethical.”
Additionally, researchers have to deal with the unpredictability of each participant's intoxication level. Since the most reliable medical studies control or account for a number of variables, the study might want to attempt to give everyone the same type of alcohol, require them to drink the same amount of alcohol, or have them reach the same BAC. Considering how alcohol affects everyone uniquely (and some may feel “too drunk” at a lower BAC than others), all of these controls present a challenge—if not a safety hazard.
All of these issues create problems for good study design, long before the hypothesized hangover remedy can even be tested.
Hangovers as Punishment: The Moral Argument
Imagine a world in which anyone could drink as much as they want and then escape the next-day hangover by sipping tomato juice (or even popping a pill). For many people, this is a world they don’t want to see.
“Some researchers and clinicians question if an effective treatment for hangovers is desirable,” says Dr. Weinstein. “The hangover experience may deter some people from engaging in subsequent episodes of heavy drinking, and if a cure is found, it could bring about devastating effects.”
Hangover or not, excess alcohol consumption can cause many long-term health effects, including brain damage, risk of fatal alcohol poisoning, and addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Being drunk is also linked to 60 percent of drownings and murders, 50 percent of sexual assaults, and 40 percent of fatal car crashes.
But on the other hand, treating hangovers as punishment for a lifestyle choice could be viewed as policing morals. The United States is constantly searching for the right line between promoting safety and policing morals, and similar debates have ensued with birth control, prohibition, sex education, the HPV vaccine, and effective treatment for HIV/AIDS. Deciding where hangover remedies fit in this debate requires taking a stance on whether curbing alcohol intake is a moral issue or a public safety issue.
The Politics of Hangover Remedies
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (a joint publication by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture ) defines moderate alcohol consumption as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
“Testing hangovers would require many more drinks than recommended. This inherently presents a political challenge,” says Mouch.
There’s also the politics of the governing bodies of the medical research community. Any research that studies on human subjects requires following strict guidelines by a review board, such as the Institutional Review Board, or IRB. The guidelines involve consent forms, protocols, and a statement of the researcher’s ethical responsibilities.
Breaking these ethics (or not going through the IRB) can result in major liability issues if something goes wrong with the human subjects, and could also jeopardize the reputation of the researcher, the university or institute they belong to, or any publication who shares the study.
Part of what the researcher must demonstrate to the reviewing boards is the value of the study despite potential risks or burdens to the human subjects. “Risks must be minimized,” says Mouch, “and the benefits are often expected to outweigh any risks.”
Is finding a remedy for a hangover worth jeopardizing the health and safety of the study participants? How does a researcher minimize the risks of excess alcohol consumption while trying to induce a hangover intentionally? A researcher has to answer these difficult questions in order to conduct their study.
Beating the Hangover Blues
While researchers probably won’t be coming out with any surefire hangover cures anytime soon, you’ve still got a few options to feel better (besides not drinking to the point of hangover in the first place). Most of these solutions “may help with one or two of the symptoms,” says Mouch, but are unlikely to make the hangover fade away completely.
Simply drinking water can help with the dehydration factor, as can electrolyte drinks (such as Pedialyte). These drinks help replace lost salt and potassium, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Resting may also be an important key to recovery. Not only are you likely to be fatigued during a hangover, but you are probably also not likely to perform at your best. That includes coordination and executive functioning, so sometimes it’s better to stay out of cars or rigorous athletics and just take it easy.
And finally, you've got one more option with a pretty solid success rate: “There has been one proven cure,” says Mouch. “Time! Most hangovers decrease within eight to 24 hours, provided no additional alcohol is consumed.”
Reviewed by: Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: April 3, 2019