If you have ever had one too many alcoholic drinks you have most likely experienced a hangover.  The definition of hangover is different for each individual but typically include headaches, fatigue, nausea and impaired attention. Gender, weight and genetics play a big role in how we metabolize alcohol.   Supposedly,  5-25% of the population is hangover resistant.  On the flip side, certain ethnic populations like Asians are missing a key enzyme to metabolize alcohol and as a result are very sensitive to any alcohol consumption.

I have been seeing more and more hangover helper supplements and was curious if there was any real data behind the ingredients so thought I would dive into this topic.  READ ON to explore how alcohol causes hangover symptoms and the supplements that have been thought to be helpful as well as 6 tips to avoid a hangover…..

Alcohol creates a multitude of changes in our body that can occur with the first drink.  There are certain key variables including our genetic makeup, weight, gender,  how much we drink and what type of alcohol.  Alcohol induces a variety of changes in the body.  It causes inflammation not only in the gut but in other areas of the body.  Chemical changes occur  affecting neurochemicals like dopamine and Gaba triggering many side-effects.  In addition, when alcohol gets metabolized it is broken down into several toxic chemicals like methanol and acetate.  Methanol gets metabolized into formaldehyde which can be even more toxic.  Alcohol also depletes glutathione which helps clear toxins so it’s a double whammy!  Blood sugars are also affected by alcohol and can cause significant hypoglycemia, low blood sugar.  Alcohol is a diuretic and can lead to dehydration easily.

There are many wives tales regarding ways to avoid hangovers.   Some have some truth to them and others not so much….

  • Eat while you are drinking.  I had a friend in college who thought McDonald’s French fries eaten while you were drinking was the best way to avoid a hangover.  Turns out she wasn’t too far off.   When you eat carbohydrates it keeps the blood sugars from dropping too low.  In addition, the salt usually makes you thirsty prompting (hopefully) more intake of water.
  • Beer before liquor makes you sicker.  Liquor before beer have no fear.  This one is on thin ice.  While there is some data that demonstrates if an alcoholic beverage has bubbles it can irritate the stomach lining causing increased absorption of alcohol the bottom line is if you drink too much you will get sick no matter what order they are in.  Some data suggests it is better to start with liquor and change to beer because liquor has a higher alcohol content so if you keep drinking and change to beer you have lower total alcohol consumption.
  • Drink one glass of water in between every alcoholic beverage.  This does help because it helps avoid the dehydration that is a problem with excess alcohol.  In addition, for good measure drink a big tall glass of water right before bed!
  • Clear liquor is less likely to cause a hangover.  Turns out there is some truth to this.  Cue the term congeners.  Congeners are substances that are produced during distillation and fermentation, and may contribute to the symptoms of hangover induced by ethanol.  They are high in the darker spirits and red wine.  High amounts are found in whiskey, cognac, tequila (yellow) and red wines.  Bourbon whiskey has the highest amount.  The higher the amount of congeners can result in a wicked hangover in some people.  Clear spirits have much less and vodka is thought to have the least amount.
  • Lower sulfite drinks and low tannins can decrease the potential for hangover.  I have heard of many low sulfite wines touting the no hangover sale.  While there is some truth that high sulfite wines may be more prone to causing hangovers it varies by the individual and how sensitive they are to them.  In general, old school wineries tend to have lower sulfites and many people can tolerate these better than the wines that have added sulfites.  Keep in mind sulfites are produced by the wine itself during the processing of it.  The difference is some wineries add sulfites to speed the process up.  The same goes for degree of tannins. Some people are very affected by tannins and others are not.
  • Best way to cure a hangover is have another drink.  Well, yes this does help because it prevents the sudden drop of alcohol in your bloodstream.  The blood mary is typically touted as the hangover cure not only because of the alcohol (white spirit) but the tomato juice has actually been shown to reduce blood alcohol levels.  So, while this may help it is a slippery slope and can contribute to alcoholism so maybe skip the alcohol and have a virgin bloody mary!
Ask the Doctor:  Forgiving and our health

How about supplements?  Can they help prevent a hangover?  With all of the marketing of supplements in this area you would think they have found the ultimate cure!  While there is some data on certain ingredients you must realize results are affected by your genetics and flat out how much you drink.  The only real way to avoid a hangover is to not drink at all!

Let’s review some key ingredients that are thought to be helpful.

  1.      Dihydromyricetin (DHM) has numerous studies showing various effects on alcohol metabolism and improvement in hangovers.  It has been shown in small studies to reduce alcohol toxicity, thought to protect the liver and reduce inflammation.
  2.      Ginger – this has been used for many different applications to reduce nausea
  3.      Prickly pear – Studies show when this is consumed it can reduce the incidence of a severe hangover by as much as 62%! Mix this with borage oil and a small study showed it decreased it by 88%.   It has also been shown to reduce dry mouth, nausea and liver inflammation.
  4.      ALA (alpha lipoic aicd) and NAC ( n Acetyl cysteine) – both help the body deal with alcohol toxins ( in different ways)
  5.      B vitamins – may minimize headaches
  6.      Milk thistle- helps protect the liver
  7.      Red Ginseng – has been shown to decrease blood alcohol levels

And there are many more that have been thought to help but these seem to have the most research.

Here are the top 6 ways to avoid a hangover

  1.      Drink clear spirits or at least limit the colored ones
  2.      Drink water in between each alcoholic beverage
  3.      Avoid fizzy mixers as this accelerates the absorption
  4.      Eat before you drink and during
  5.      Consider some supplements to support you. Don’t forget electrolytes which may help with the dehydration.
  6.      Know your limits and stop while your ahead!

Stay safe and drink responsibly!

To your health,

Laura