There's nothing quite like experiencing the special form of torture known as a hangover. The throbbing pain, sensitivity to sound and light, and queasy stomach is enough to send anyone on a desperate search for quick fixes. Even though everyone seems to have the "miracle cure," the truth is there's no such thing.
The only true way to prevent a hangover is to avoid drinking alcohol. Despite that, there's an increasing number of products on the market that claim to prevent a hangover -- most are a drink, elixir or supplement that you take before or after drinking. Many of them are expensive -- like this antihangover drink brand that charges $36 for a six-pack or this similar one that charges $29 for a six-pack of drinks.
So what's in these drinks exactly, and can they really help you prevent or cure a hangover? Keep reading to find out what a registered dietician thinks, and other science-backed tips to help you prevent or nurse a hangover.
What actually causes a hangover?
Alcohol, coupled with lack of water and a late night is the perfect recipe to feel pretty bad the next day. But what exactly is a night of drinking doing to your body to make you feel so bad?
According to dietician Jennifer Maeng, two main factors are at play; first dehydration, followed by low blood sugar which are both caused by ethanol. "The main cause of hangover is ethanol -- the alcohol which has a diuretic effect and dehydrates you. So ultimately, (a) hangover is due to dehydration. Symptoms of dehydration are fatigue, headache, nausea, and dizziness," Maeng said.
Ever wonder why after drinking you sometimes feel really hungry? According to Maeng, who is the founder of Chelsea Nutrition in New York City, it could be due to low blood sugar, which also contributes to your hangover. "Alcohol can prevent your body from maintaining a tight blood sugar control and cause low blood sugar level. Symptoms of low blood sugar are fatigue, headache and nausea," Maeng said. Those symptoms are familiar to anyone who's had a hangover before.
What are antihangover drinks, and what do they have in them?
Antihangover drinks are specifically marketed to help you cure or prevent a hangover if you drink them before, during and/or after drinking alcohol.
Most of them contain vitamins, electrolytes and other special ingredients that claim to help your body deal with alcohol better than if you don't drink them. A lot of them contain many herbs that are said to help the body (especially the liver) clear alcohol quickly.
Two brands I found on the market, The Plug Drink and the Morning Recovery drink, look pretty similar in that they contain vitamins, a blend of herbs meant to help the liver and dihydromyricetin. According to More Lab's website, "DHM helps your brain stay balanced and enhances your body's natural ability to break down alcohol." (Side note for both of these sites: I found it very difficult to find a full ingredient list of what's in the drinks. Both had disclaimers at the bottom that the drinks and their statements are not FDA approved.)
When I asked dietician Maeng her opinion on DHM, she said not to buy into the claims yet. "One of the main ingredients in these drinks is DHM, which they believe prevents alcohol from having intoxicating effects on the brain. But more studies need to be done on its effectiveness on preventing a hangover," Maeng said. "There is no magical hangover cure drink. But B complex with C and electrolytes in the drink can be helpful in preventing hangovers."
The bottom line is that antihangover drinks have not been proven to cure a hangover or stop one from happening in the first place.
What to do before, during and after drinking to prevent a hangover
If you don't want to drop a lot of cash on questionable antihangover drinks, there are several things you can do instead to help prevent hangovers and practice healthier alcohol consumption.
What to do before you drink
There's a reason why you get way less intoxicated when you've eaten than if you drink on an empty stomach.
"Drinking on an empty stomach can irritate your digestive system and cause rapid absorption of alcohol. So I always recommend my clients to have high-protein and -fat snacks such as nuts before going out to a happy hour," Maeng said.
What to do while you drink
"I always tell my clients to double-fist whenever possible. For one alcoholic beverage, drink a glass of water. If you are dining out, always order a large bottle of water for the table and continue to hydrate," Maeng said.
In addition to hydrating in between drinks, you can also make better alcohol choices that will reduce the chance that you'll get a hangover. "Order hard alcohol such as vodka [or] tequila with seltzer rather than straight up. To avoid congeners, which can also contribute to hangovers, choose lighter colored drinks such as vodka or tequila rather than scotch or whiskey," Maeng suggests.
What to do after you drink
In addition to hydrating with water, it's also a good idea to add back some key nutrients that may have been depleted from the diuretic effect you get from alcohol.
"I usually recommend B-complex with C (look for B1, B6 and B12) and lots of water after a night of heavy drinking," Maeng said.
"Stay away from additional diuretics such as coffee [or] caffeinated tea the next day. Try to drink lots of water and naturally decaffeinated teas such as lemon ginger (also to help soothe your stomach). Eat nutritious, whole foods to replenish all the nutrients you may have lost from drinking heavily. Not those greasy, heavy foods!"
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.