Mind & Body

This Medical Breakthrough Might Be a Real-Life Hangover Cure

Is there anything worse than recovering from a hangover? The splitting headache, the roiling nausea, the bleary vision, and worst of all, the slow-trickling memories of the night before. There's still not a pill that undoes an embarrassing karaoke act, but a new pharmaceutical solution could reverse the effects of alcohol on the body.

Busting Booze

If you ask chemical engineer Yunfeng Lu, alcohol abuse, poisoning, and overuse are some of the most pressing national health issues of the modern era. He's got a point: Alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature death among those between the ages of 15 and 49, and in the United States alone, no fewer than six people die from alcohol poisoning every day. Alcohol isn't likely to fade in popularity any time soon, though, regardless of its detrimental effects on health — plus, not all of its health effects are bad. The good news is that Lu isn't trying to eliminate alcohol: just the poisoning. Or, as he says, "As a chemical engineering professor and wine enthusiast, I felt I needed to find a solution."

In a new study, Lu led a team that included liver disease experts to devise a pharmaceutical antidote to the toxic effects of alcohol. The secret? A suite of three naturally occurring enzymes known to break down alcohol into harmless molecules instead. The hard part wasn't discovering the enzymes — we've known about them for years. Instead, the trick was to deliver those enzymes to the liver in a safe, effective way. To crack that puzzle, the team protected the enzymes inside nanocapsules made of an FDA-approved material and injected them into the circulatory systems of some very drunk mice.

Those mice had been dosed with ethanol, which got them so drunk that they passed out (mice have a reputation for being lightweights). After four hours, the ones that had been given the trio of enzymes demonstrated a 45-percent drop in blood alcohol content, and they woke up earlier than their drunker companions. They also experienced less liver damage. So could this truly be the end of hangovers? Well, maybe not quite yet.

The Making of Morning-After Misery

There's one big reason why this might not actually be the hangover-cureall it promises to be: we don't actually know for sure what causes hangovers. Yes, we know that rum, tequila, and moonshine are all likely suspects — but in terms of why drinking alcohol is accompanied by this lingering blergh-ness, there are a lot of different theories. The likely answer is that it is a lot of different factors: Alcohol is a diuretic, which can leave you dehydrated, and it irritates your stomach lining, contributing to nausea. However, many scientists lay the most blame on acetaldehyde: a toxic carcinogen that takes time to be metabolized. Drink too much, too quickly, and your body won't be able to catch up. The result? A terrible day or two to follow.

The only problem with that theory is that acetaldehyde is metabolized eventually, and most hangovers hit their peak after levels of the chemical have trickled back down to the normal-ish range. So what causes hangovers, and will blasting alcohol out of your system prevent them? We aren't quite sure yet. But this technique holds a lot of potential to save lives all over the world.

Get stories like this one in your inbox each morning. Sign up for our daily email here.

So you can't get your hangover pills quite yet. Good news: you can get Milton Crawford's "The Hungover Cookbook" instead. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

This Is Your Brain on Alcohol

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 27, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.