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Can Plants Really Protect You from a Hangover?

A special supplement containing extracts from five plants (acerola, ginger, ginkgo, prickly pear and willow) reduced hangover symptoms significantly.
Can Plants Really Protect You from a Hangover?
Jack russell dog very sick and ill with ice pack or bag on head suffering hangover and headache resting on bed

While many commercial establishments have been severely affected by stay-at-home orders, those that sell liquor, beer and wine have been doing a brisk business. Consequently, new research on a hangover remedy that actually works could be welcome news indeed. But will plant extracts really prevent a hangover?

What Causes a Hangover?

Surprisingly, scientists don’t actually know exactly why drinking too much makes you feel so terrible the next day (PLoS One, Dec. 31, 2010). Many people believe that dehydration is responsible for the headache, whereas others blame congeners or acetaldehyde, a compound that the body makes from ethanol. In one study, researchers determined that a different metabolite, acetate, causes the delayed headache typical of a hangover. At least, they found that to be the case in rats, who unfortunately cannot tell you how bad they feel. In humans, free oxygen radicals formed at the same time as acetate may also contribute to symptoms.

Plants to Prevent a Hangover:

Some cultures have touted specific plants to treat hangovers. Specifically, flowers from kudzu (Pueraria lobata) were a traditional hangover remedy in some Eastern countries. However, Australian researchers determined that kudzu root is not safe or effective for this purpose (Alcohol, Nov. 2007). 

Recently, German scientists tested a supplement containing polyphenols extracted from five different plants together with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, April 30, 2020). Previous research had identified each of the five as potential hangover remedies. They compared that supplement with two other treatments. One was identical to the first except it lacked the plant supplements and the other was a straightforward placebo consisting of glucose alone.

The investigators recruited 214 subjects and randomly assigned them to get one of these treatments. All treatments were administered in flavored water. Those who got the water containing extracts of acerola, prickly pear, ginkgo, willow and ginger reported significantly less nausea, headache, restlessness and feelings of indifference after drinking alcohol. Neither the other treatment nor the glucose placebo made any difference in symptoms of veisalgia, the medical term for hangover.

Other Lessons from the Study:

Additionally, the researchers found a lot of individual variability in susceptibility to hangover. Some people had symptoms although they did not drink a great deal of alcohol, while others were less likely to also report symptoms after drinking more alcohol

The scientists also confirmed, perhaps unnecessarily, that hangover symptoms are caused by alcohol consumption. Dehydration apparently does not play an important role, nor do electrolytes ease the discomfort. 

The maker of the plant extract supplement (Fermenta GmbH) provided it and the placebo beverages, but did not provide funding or dictate the protocol. 

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Maxwell CR et al, "Acetate causes alcohol hangover headache in rats." PLoS One, Dec. 31, 2010. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015963
  • McGregor NR, "Pueraria lobata (Kudzu root) hangover remedies and acetaldehyde-associated neoplasm risk." Alcohol, Nov. 2007. DOI: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2007.07.009
  • Lieb B & Schmitt P, "Randomised double-blind placebo-controlled intervention study on the nutritional efficacy of a food for special medical purposes (FSMP) and a dietary supplement in reducing the symptoms of veisalgia." BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, April 30, 2020. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjnph-2019-000042
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