Before the Booze: Cactus extract dulls hangovers

An inflammation-fighting plant extract, taken hours before consuming alcohol, appears to suppress some of the symptoms brought on by a bout of heavy drinking. The new study, supported by the extract’s manufacturer, may have intriguing implications for understanding and preventing the effects of excessive alcohol consumption.

Too much alcohol increases short-term inflammation and can cause tissue damage, according to previous data. That may explain the link observed between frequent hangovers and elevated risk of heart attack. In contrast, moderate alcohol consumption seems to reduce risk of heart disease and dementia, possibly by reducing inflammation of blood vessels (SN: 3/8/03, p. 155: Available to subscribers at When Drinking Helps).

Numerous companies sell products intended to prevent or treat hangover symptoms, such as headache, nausea, and dizziness. Most such remedies have not been evaluated scientifically, and one that has been tested—artichoke extract—appears not to work.

The new study examined another herbal remedy, an extract from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus indica). The preparation is marketed under the brand name Hangover Prevention Formula. The manufacturer supplied the extract to Jeff Wiese of Tulane University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans and his colleagues, who tested it on 64 students in their 20s and 30s. Three hours after taking a pill containing either the extract or an inert substitute, the volunteers ate a meal and, 2 hours later, began drinking heavily at a party supervised by the researchers.

The following morning, volunteers who’d taken the extract reported fewer “severe hangovers” than those who’d taken the inert pill did, Wiese and his team report in the June 28 Archives of Internal Medicine. Members of the extract group also had lower blood concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol and of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation. They reported less nausea, dry mouth, and appetite loss but didn’t differ from the others in six additional hangover symptoms.

“Some of the classic symptoms”—including headaches and dizziness—”did not show improvement,” says epidemiologist James M. Blum of Bangor, Maine. Nevertheless, he adds, “Their results were pretty strong.”

Blum’s research group was hired by the manufacturer of a competing hangover remedy to test its product, called Chaser. Blum says that Chaser, which contains activated charcoal that binds impurities, also works.

The association between inflammation and hangover is “something that nobody’s thought of before,” Blum says. He cautions, however, “We don’t have the data to say inflammation is what’s causing the hangover.”

That implication is important because it suggests that various anti-inflammatory drugs could counteract the problem, says neurophysiologist David Johnson of the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, Maine. Although many drinkers take a couple of aspirin when they wake up with a hangover, that’s probably too late to block inflammation, he notes.

In future experiments, it would be sensible to test prickly pear extract and other patented putative hangover remedies against aspirin, he says.

Johnson also expresses unease about alleviating the next-day consequences of imbibing heavily. Drugs that grant partial immunity to hangovers might encourage binge drinking and “could very well increase risk of heart disease and liver disease 30 years down the road,” he says.

Wiese shares that concern but says that the benefits of preventing hangovers probably outweigh the risks. He estimates that hangovers cost society billions of dollars each year in lost productivity and preventable accidents.

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