For people who have inadvertently overindulged in alcohol, the dreaded hangover may be eased by consuming extract from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, according to researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans. They found that volunteers who took the extract a few hours before drinking reduced their hangover symptoms by as much as 50 percent compared with drinkers who took a placebo.
The study, conducted with assistance from University of California, San Franciso, was published this summer in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The researchers theorized that the primary cause of a hangover is the "heightened inflammatory state induced by alcohol impurities" known as congeners, byproducts of fermentation and distillation. Dehydration and alcohol's effects on hormone levels may exacerbate the condition. The scientists wanted to find out if reducing tissue inflammation would also help reduce hangover symptoms.
Extracts of the prickly pear fruit, a round, reddish berry covered with tiny hairs, have been shown in prior studies to reduce inflammation by accelerating the production of "heat shock proteins," which are a reaction to environmental stress.
The scientists studied 55 Tulane graduate students, aged 21 to 35, who didn't smoke, had prior hangover experience and did not have a medical history of hypertension, liver disease or cardiac disease. They used a prickly pear extract called Tex-OE, which was donated by Extracts Plus, now known as Perfect Equation.
In a supervised environment, subjects followed a set regime. At 2 p.m., vital signs were measured and blood and urine samples were taken. At 3 p.m., roughly half the subjects were given the Tex-OE capsule, with the others took a placebo. At 6 p.m., the subjects were fed a dinner of cheeseburgers and fries with a soda. Students were given a choice of spirits: gin, rum, vodka (all three of which are fairly low in congeners), bourbon, scotch and tequila (which are higher in congeners). From 8 p.m. to midnight, the subjects consumed up to 1.75 grams of alcohol per kilogram of their body weight (varying from around five to 10 drinks per person). Previous studies have shown this amount of alcohol will produce a hangover safely, the researchers said.
At 1 a.m., blood samples were taken. The volunteers were then sent home via a car service to rest and returned at 10 a.m. to have their vital signs measured again and to fill out hangover reports. The study was repeated with the same volunteers on another occasion, with similar results.
Hangover severity was self-reported in a survey that has also been used in previous studies; volunteers rated the severity of several symptoms -- such as headache, nausea, weakness, diarrhea and dizziness -- on a 7-point scale, with 0 being no symptoms and 6 being "worst possible symptoms," requiring one to miss work or school. The scientists then averaged these numbers to create a "hangover index."
The scientists wrote that they found "hangover symptom severity to be moderately reduced by an extract of the prickly pear plant." They also noted that the 10 worst hangovers occurred in subjects who were given the placebo.
On average, placebo takers recorded 2.7 points on the hangover severity index, while extract takers recorded an average of 1.2 points. The type of spirits consumed did not statistically alter the severity of the hangover. The researchers also adjusted for hangover severity by measuring levels of inflammatory markers in the blood and urine; these levels were undetectable in 49 percent of the extract takers, but only 24 percent of the placebo takers. With all factors taken into account, the scientists concluded that taking the extract may lead to a 50 percent lower chance of developing a hangover.
The authors acknowledged that the study has limitations. For example, younger people often experience less-severe hangovers than older people, so the results may not pertain to the general population.
Lead author Dr. Jeff Wiese also added that wine drinkers may not benefit from using the Tex-OE extract, because wine contains extra components that may lead to increased inflammation. "Wine, more so than other alcohols, is full of nonvolatile congeners, i.e., tannins, fusel oil, cask oil, etc., which is nice for taste, or can be, but may make the hangover worse," he said.
Perfect Equation, the manufacturer of Tex-OE, has been using the study results to promote its "Hangover Prevention Formula," a commercially available product that it claims is more effective than Tex-OE alone because it also includes B-vitamins that are depleted when alcohol is consumed. (The Tulane study noted that vitamin B6 supplements reduced hangover symptoms in previous research.) The company's Web site touts: "A clinical test by independent researchers at Tulane University proves it: HPF prevents hangovers!"
Wiese had no comment on Perfect Equation's use of his study as a marketing tool, but the study said the authors had no financial interest in the article. The research also noted that hangover preventatives are not intended to encourage overconsumption of alcohol and the authors did not encourage their use. The report added, "The best prevention for the hangover would obviously be abstinence from alcohol."
For a comprehensive look at the potential health benefits of drinking wine, check out senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson's feature Eat Well, Drink Wisely, Live Longer: The Science Behind A Healthy Life With Wine
Read more about the potential health benefits of light to moderate alcohol consumption:
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Here's to Your Health: Is it now medically correctfor a physician to prescribe a little wine to lower the risk of heart disease?