You wake up sluggish and roll up your blackout blinds every so slightly. That headache creeps in slowly, then starts blaring all at once. You start regretting your choices. That’s when the hangxiety sinks in. You question, was it all even worth it? Does it always have to be this way? If, like me, you’ve spent a portion of a Saturday morning frantically scouring the internet for a "hangover cure" or related terms, you’ve probably seen a handful of magic hangover pills popping up in the market. But what is it about them that works, and how effective are they, really?
Unlike post-night-out recovery hacks—Pedialyte, IV drips, bananas, you get the picture—these supplements claim to adopt a preemptive approach to your bender recovery: helping your body metabolize alcohol quicker and offering a boost of vitamins and minerals to help replenish your system’s line of defenses.
Hangovers are a multi-part affair. It's like your whole body gets together the morning after you drink to talk about how to ruin your life the following day. Alcohol's diuretic or dehydrating effects cause most hangover symptoms: the bleary-eyed headache and incessant need to pee, and alcohol also disrupts your GI system, leading to gastro issues like diarrhea and nausea.
But another issue with hangovers is the accumulation of alcohol’s most toxic byproduct: acetaldehyde. That’s where these supplements come in. “When you drink, there's a hormone that’s suppressed, and it causes you to urinate more, and you can become dehydrated, but you're not losing just water, you're losing other minerals and electrolytes from your body too,” explains Aarati Didwania, MD, who specializes in internal medicine at Northwestern Medicine. “The way that all these pills are being marketed is that they're replacing what you're losing. Some of them also seem to claim that they're helping the way that your liver metabolizes the alcohol.”
Congeners are another byproduct of alcohol being fermented, and some research has shown that clear beverages, with little-to-no congeners, like vodka, gin, and beer, can give you a less intense hangover compared to darker alcohols that are high in congeners: red wine, aged whisky, your grandfather's favorite bourbon, things like that. “We don't know the exact mechanism [of a hangover]. We believe some of it is dehydration, some of it is congeners, a lot of it is acetaldehyde formation,” adds Kasey Nichols, NMD, an Arizona-based naturopathic doctor at Onyx Integrative Medicine and Aesthetics.
When asked if hangover supplements could potentially help with any part of this chain, Dr. Nichols said that, in theory, they could. “As long as you're drinking the same amount, that theory could work out. If you're not drinking the same amount because you're trying to get buzzed, then that could definitely not be the case,” he shares. Still, experts maintain that there really needs to be scientific proof behind the efficiency of these products, as opposed to merely theoretical ones.
As for the risk involved with consuming these pills in addition to booze? “Right now, the safety profiles are kind of high compared to the risk profile on it. So it's a try-at-your-own-risk kind of thing,” Dr. Nichols says. Still, it’s important to note that some supplements contain more than the recommended daily allowance of certain vitamins in their formulation, which we simply excrete if our body doesn't use (while some vitamins can cause problems if consumed in too-high quantities, we just expel most of them).
“For the majority of the population, [these hangover supplements are] not going to cause any harm. But it's the fact that they're unregulated, and you don't really know the exact quantities of everything that's in them or who's monitoring what's written on the outside of the packaging versus what's actually in the pill that I think is the danger,” Dr. Didwania says, adding that if you're taking a multi-vitamin daily, you're probably getting the same benefits. Another worry is that people might falsely assume that taking these supplements means they’re protected from the effects of alcohol, which could then encourage excessive drinking—something that study after study proves isn't healthy.
So, taking all this in mind, do these hangover supplements work? The majority of supporting evidence is anecdotal at best, and more research is needed to help prove this out. A lot of customer reviews out there rave about these products, with people reporting that they feel refreshed the following day. Others who have put them to the test are less convinced, citing that placebo effects might be at play. (Full disclaimer: I’ve popped these Korean-made tablets before a night out and woke up in the morning feeling chipper).
To date, no peer-reviewed studies have been done to be able to confirm the safety or efficiency of these products, and of the limited studies conducted, most have concluded that more research is needed to determine whether or not these methods can effectively reduce the severity of a hangover. So: shrug. “One of the ways that they seem, anecdotally, to work is that people drink more water, and so that seems to help quite a bit. But there isn't science that actually proves that any of these things is effective,” Dr. Didwania says. The fact of the matter is—as all these supplements caution—they don't make consuming alcohol any safer.
So, if not these, then what’s the best way to prevent a hangover beyond drinking in moderation? The key is hydration. “Staying hydrated before you go out drinking is just as important as hydrating after drinking,” says Dr. Nichols.
Originally Appeared on GQ