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A big meal before drinking helps prevent hangovers: Myth or science?



Waking up to a raging hangover after a night of fun dampens the spirits of many a partier across the globe. The experience of the horrible hangover has been around for centuries, and understandably, so have hangover cures. Every culture has its preferred methods for trying to cure hangovers, and many people have claimed to have the "miracle cure". However, is there science to back these claims? Do hangover cures really work? Over the past few decades, scientists have set about trying to answer this question. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has led clinical trials assessing new hangover cure products, which is not surprising in light of projections that the hangover cure product category is set to expand by 14% each year, as suggested in an article in the New York Times (Blum, 2022). Popular pharmacological products used to cure hangovers include Korean pear juice, clove extract, tolfenamic acid, L-cysteine, and red ginseng. However, a review found that although 21 studies were carried out and 386 people were given these products as potential treatments, there were minimal positive outcomes (Roberts et al.,2022). One frequently used method to prevent/alleviate hangover symptoms that are not pharmacological is to eat food before consuming alcohol. So, is there science to back this popular cure? To explore this question, it’s useful to understand how alcohol affects our bodies and leads to hangovers.



What causes hangover symptoms?

Despite the fact that the science behind hangovers has been a topic of study for decades, the mechanisms behind what causes them are still relatively unknown. However, scientists have found that the symptoms are linked to alcohol causing dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, low blood sugar, sleep and biological rhythm disruptions, and gastrointestinal disturbances. The headache associated with hangovers may be due to dehydration, vasodilation (widening of blood vessels) through alcohol metabolism, or alcohol's effect on hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical courier that is essential for the body) such as serotonin, histamines, and prostaglandin. Another suggestion is that hangover nausea is related to the compound acetaldehyde, which is a byproduct of alcohol metabolism. Acetaldehyde at high concentrations can be toxic and cause sweating, nausea, and vomiting. Most people metabolize this byproduct quickly into a less harmful metabolite, however, some people’s genetics predispose them to poor metabolism of acetaldehyde, and thus to accumulation and possibly more severe hangover symptoms. While scientists are still exploring the mechanisms behind the hangover, cures themselves are also being tested to see whether there is scientific evidence that they work (Swift R, & Davidson D., 1998).


Food as a prevention for hangovers

Eating greasy foods like hamburgers and pizza has been commonly thought to help “soak up” alcohol and decrease a hangover, but what does science say about this theory? Several studies have been conducted on this topic, and most of the results are positive. In a study consisting of eight men and eight women, eating a meal was demonstrated to lower breath alcohol concentration compared to a fasted state or those who ate a light snack (Sadler DW., & Fox J., 2011). Time-dependent studies showed that the absorption of food over time led to a decrease in breath alcohol concentration levels, thus indicating the potential for a lower prevalence of hangover symptoms. Additionally, the availability of alcohol for absorption was 100% in those who were fasting or had a light snack, but those who had a meal decreased the availability of alcohol to 66% in females and 71% in males. Alcohol absorption availability was calculated using breath alcohol concentration time curves to predict an availability value.


A different study consisting of 51 male participants explored the effect that meal composition had on blood alcohol levels. Subjects were either fasting, given a high carbohydrate meal (baked potatoes), or a high protein meal (chicken breast), and the results were drastically in favor of the high carbohydrate meal. Those on the high carbohydrate meal had lower blood alcohol levels at peak intoxication and 2 hours later, had decreased peak intoxication levels, and experienced less negative effects due to the alcohol compared to the high protein meal or fasting groups (Finnigan et al., 1998). Another study involving 133 males also demonstrated that those who consumed meals before alcohol intake also had decreased blood alcohol levels compared to those who didn’t. This study also assessed whether meals had an effect on alcohol-induced performance impairment. The results indicated that reaction time and short-term memory impairment were reduced when a meal was consumed beforehand (Millar et al., 1992).



So what are the takeaways?

While the science is currently unable to go in-depth on how consuming a meal before drinking could help prevent hangovers on a molecular level, the experimental data strongly supports that food, and specifically a high carbohydrate diet, helps to lower blood alcohol levels and decrease the amount of alcohol available for absorption. This could help to lower your hangover symptoms and feel better after a night of drinking. So while we are not advocating for you to eat a meal and drink more, it may be a good idea to go for a pasta dish or rice bowl before a night out after all!


Written by Kelsey Racacho, BS and Madelyn Bradley, MS and edited by Stephanie Palacio, PhD and Aldrin V Gomes, PhD


References

Blum, D. (2022, December). Can anything help a hangover?



Millar K, Hammersley, R H, Finnigan, F. Reduction of alcohol-induced performance impairment by prior ingestion of food. British journal of psychology 1992;82:261–278.



Sadler DW, Fox J. Intra-individual and inter-individual variation in breath alcohol pharmacokinetics: The effect of food on absorption. Science & justice: journal of the Forensic Science Society 2011;51(1):3–9.


Swift R, Davidson D. Alcohol Hangover. Alcohol Health Res World 1998;22(1):56-60.



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