How to mitigate hangovers

Introduction

Many natural products exist that are purported to be able to prevent hangovers, but unfortunately when one talks about natural hangover remedies it is difficult to find many well funded scientific studies that validate or refute such claims. This is at least in part because few if any companies are willing to invest millions of dollars investigating and running clinical trials to validate natural products that cannot then be patented to make a profit from.

In this article, I briefly discuss the main cause of hangovers, and will then discuss two natural supplements that can mitigate the negative impacts of drinking alcohol. This article refers to scientific publications wherever possible, but like many other articles on this topic it is also partially based on pseudo-science and personal experience.

What causes a hangover

In order to understand the cause of a hangover, it is necessary to first understand at a high-level the process how alcohol is broken down. As described in this report from the National Institute of Health, alcohol is broken down in two stages:

  1. Most of the ethanol (aka alcohol) is broken down in the liver, which transforms the ethanol into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
  2. Then, in a second step, acetaldehyde  (from step 1) is further metabolised by the liver down to another, less active byproduct called acetate. This acetate then is broken down into water and carbon dioxide for easy elimination.

As discussed in this article from Scientific American, most hangover symptoms are linked to elevated levels of acetaldehyde, and it specifically states the following:

That dreadful feeling the next day is the condition often called a hangover, which the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism characterizes as “general misery” with symptoms of drowsiness, concentration problems, dry mouth, dizziness, gastrointestinal complaints, sweating, nausea, hyperexcitability and anxiety. Most of these symptoms have been linked to elevated levels of acetaldehyde.

If acetaldehyde is the cause of hangovers, then the natural conclusion is that in order to reduce hangovers, one should try to reduce the amount of acetaldehyde in the body.  This can be achieved in the following ways:

  1. Drink less alcohol.
  2. Improve liver function to speed up the conversion of acetaldehyde into acetate.

For the remainder of this blog, we focus on option #2.

How to reduce acetaldehyde buildup caused by heavy drinking

Given that the breakdown of alcohol occurs primarily in the liver, if one can improve liver function then one could theoretically remove acetaldehyde from one’s system faster, and therefore mitigate the resultant hangover. It turns out that a naturally occurring product that improves liver function exists, and that it is readily and cheaply available. It is called milk thistle, and it has been used for thousands of years for improving liver function.

According to this article from the National Institute of Health,  the following has been shown about milk thistle:

  1. Evidence exists that milk thistle may be hepatoprotective (protects the liver) through a number of mechanisms: antioxidant activity, toxin blockade at the membrane level, enhanced protein synthesis, antifibriotic activity, and possible anti-inflammatory or immunomodulating effects.
  2. Among six studies of milk thistle and chronic alcoholic liver disease, four reported significant improvement in at least one measurement of liver function.

Given that milk thistle has been shown to improve liver function and to protect the liver, it stands to reason that if it is taken after drinking it should help metabolise acetaldehyde. Therefore, if one takes milk thistle after drinking and before going to bed, theoretically the amount of acetaldehyde in the body should be reduced while one sleeps, and the hangover should therefore be reduced.

How to reduce that lethargic feeling after drinking

Alcohol is known to reduce vitamin B concentrations as reported in this article. Additionally, low vitamin B levels can cause anaemia as documented in this article. Therefore, taking vitamin B supplements can reduce the feelings of lethargy if one’s vitamin B levels have been depleted from excess alcohol consumption.

Conclusions

Two cheap and readily available supplements that can reduce hangovers and the effects of excessive alcohol consumption are milk thistle, and vitamin B. If these supplements are taken before going to sleep after a night of drinking, they should help mitigate the hangover that would have otherwise been experienced. It is important to note that these supplements must be taken before going to bed – by morning it may be too late.

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