Inflammation Could Be Making Your Hangovers Worse—Here's What to Do About It
Besides swearing off alcohol forever ...
Over the years, there have been dozens of purported cures and at least three feature films about hangovers, and all we learned was that the former may be even more entertaining than the latter. Coffee, greasy breakfast food and sweating out the alcohol won't help your pounding head or upset stomach, but researchers may finally be zeroing in on what could.
"Hangovers are likely caused by a combination of things, and a large proportion of that is inflammation-driven," says Carolyn Williams, R.D., author of Meals that Heal. Normally, inflammation is a natural response of a healthy immune system—think about how the area around a paper cut reddens and swells before it heals. "That," says Williams, "is a good sign. It shows that your immune system is jumping in to fix the problem."
But sustained, low-grade inflammation has also been linked to many chronic diseases, and can be triggered by everything from cigarette smoke to stress—and, we now know, by alcohol. "A hangover is more like an acute inflammatory response," says Williams—by which she means, closer to our body's response to a paper cut than to a chronic disease. That could explain a hangover's temporary flu-like symptoms of headache, achiness, nausea and fatigue.
The reason many so-called hangover "cures" don't work is because your body's inflammatory response has already been set in motion. Nothing you do or eat after that point is going to change it; you simply have to wait for those symptoms to subside. Even anti-inflammatory medications provided limited relief in one recent study.
But German researchers reported greater success earlier this year with a plant-based supplement given to volunteers 45 minutes before and again immediately after a four-hour imbibing window. The group who received the full dose of powdered vitamins, minerals, anti-inflammatory plant extracts and antioxidant compounds mixed with water experienced greatly reduced symptoms—headache intensity, for example, was about one-third less severe, on average.
"It's an interesting concept of trying to quell the inflammation before it happens," says Alicia Galvin, R.D., Usually, the body's immune response is triggered when alcohol passes through the intestines on its way to the liver, she says. Increased production of compounds known as endotoxins promote inflammation and are carried by the bloodstream throughout the body, which may be why the symptoms of a hangover aren't localized to one area of the body. "It makes sense that giving a compound mixture that is anti-inflammatory would help calm down that immune response," Galvin says.
The German researchers used a mix of extracts with known anti-inflammatory properties, including prickly pear, ginkgo biloba and ginger root, as well as minerals such as magnesium and potassium, but further research is needed to determine exactly how they worked, so a cure in a bottle is (unfortunately) still a ways off. Interesting, the study also debunked the idea that dehydration or a lack of electrolytes is solely responsible for a hangover.
For now, says Galvin, your best bet for warding off the aftereffects of one too many rosés is to stock up on things that support gut health, since 80% of your immune system is in your gut. Fiber-rich foods, zinc, vitamin D and probiotics are all a good idea. And even if science does come up with a cure for that awful day-after feeling, it shouldn't be an excuse to overindulge consequence-free. There's evidence that repeatedly consuming alcohol to excess can lead to chronic inflammation and set the stage for other health issues. So, as they say, enjoy responsibly.